Archive for May, 2018

Chuck Knox is Wall of Fame Worthy

May 23, 2018

by John Furgele (The Nostalgic 228)

Why would anybody make a case for a coach who went 37-36 over five seasons to be included on the team’s Wall of Fame?  But, that’s exactly what I’m doing in reference to Chuck Knox, who recently passed at the age of 86.

Knox is best remembered for coaching the Rams and Seahawks, but his five years in Buffalo should not be forgotten.

Knox was known as the “Bud Grant of NFC and AFC Championship Games.”  Each year, his teams would play great football, but could never make it to the Super Bowl.  In the NFC, he always had the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys in his way and in the AFC, his Seahawks were just lacking in overall talent to get over the hump.

In 1973—his first season as head coach– the man who loved running the ball so much that he was referred to as Ground Chuck, led the Rams to a 12-2 record.  In the playoffs, they lost to the Cowboys in the Divisional round.  Over the next three seasons—74, 75, 76, the Rams would lose NFC Championship Games to Minnesota, Dallas and Minnesota respectively.  In 1977, his 10-4 Rams lost again to Minnesota, this time in the Divisional Playoffs, and even though he had signed an extension, owner Carroll Rosenblum had had enough of the losing and Knox was dismissed.

Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills had seen his team fall on hard times.  Despite having O.J. Simpson, the Bills made the playoffs once, in 1974, where they were crushed by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Wilson’s relationships with coaches were always in question and after three straight winning seasons in 1973, 1974, and 1975, the Bills hit rock bottom in 1976 with a 2-12 campaign.  Even though they finished 3-11 in ’77, that team was worse than the prior year’s squad.

Wilson had a reputation for being frugal and that was always evident when he hired coaches.  Marv Levy led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls and because of that is enshrined in Canton, but when Wilson hired him in 1986, he got him on the cheap.  Levy was coaching in the USFL; how wanted could he have been?  When Wilson hired him, Western New York did not do cartwheels; that would take a few years.

Wilson’s hiring of Knox was the best hire he ever made.  Knox was in demand; and despite not getting to the Super Bowl, was a consummate winner.  When frustrated Ram ownership let him go, coming to Buffalo was on nobody’s radar, but before you knew it, Knox was the new coach of the Buffalo Bills.

The 1977 Bills scored just 160 points in 14 games.  By then, Simpson was done and the Bills traded him to his hometown 49ers.  The ’78 team finished just 5-11, but they had improved under Knox. True to his Ground Chuck moniker, the Bills averaged 4.3 yards per rush on 558 attempts.

The ’79 team improved to 7-9, but that’s a bit deceptive.  In Week 13, the 6-6 Bills beat New England in Foxboro in overtime to improve to 7-6.  Some were thinking playoffs and the next week, the Bills hosted the Denver Broncos.  In a close game, the Broncos prevailed 19-16, a deflating loss that they never recovered from as they lost their last two to end the year on a three-game losing skid.

In the 1970s, the Bills played the Miami Dolphins 20 times.  Their record:  0-20.  In 1980, the season opener was at Rich Stadium against the dominant Dolphins.  Despite five interceptions thrown by Joe Ferguson, the Bills defense dominated Miami and won 17-7.  The 0 for the 1970s skid was over and Knox was carried off the field by his players.

The 1980 Bills were good—very good.  They began the season 5-0 and in week 4; they dominated the Oakland Raiders 24-7 at home and the next week, won at San Diego, 26-24.  Thoughts of the Super Bowl danced in the heads of Bills fans, but the team sputtered in midseason and needed a final game victory at San Francisco to win the AFC East and earn a playoff berth.  Mother Nature greeted the teams with monsoon rains, but the Bills held off the pesky Niners—and Joe Montana—to win 18-13.

Ferguson played the Divisional Playoff game with a broken bone in his ankle, but guided the Bills to a 14-3 lead over the explosive Chargers in San Diego.  The Chargers rallied for a 20-14 win.  The next week, the Chargers lost at home to Oakland; a team the Bills had routed in week 4.  But, in just three seasons, Knox had the Bills on the cusp of greatness.

The 1981 Bills were not as good as the ’80 squad, but again, they made the playoffs, this time as a Wild Card with a 10-6 record.  In the Wild Card game, they jumped out to a 24-0 lead against the Jets at Shea Stadium.  Late in the game, they led 31-27 but the Jets were driving.  Another Simpson—Bill—saved the day when he picked off Richard Todd in the end zone to preserve the four point win.

The next week, the Bills faced the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium.  After falling behind 14-0 and then 21-14, the Bills rallied to tie things up at 21-21.  After Cincinnati took a 28-21 lead, Ferguson had the Bills driving deep into Cincinnati territory.  On a 4th and 3, he hit Lou Piccone for an apparent first down, but the Bills were called for a delay of game penalty.  On the subsequent 4th and 8 play, Ferguson’s pass was incomplete and the Bengals escaped and the next week, routed the Chargers in the Freezer Bowl; a game that saw the wind chill reach minus 59 degrees.

The Bills, under Knox looked like they would threaten in the AFC for years to come and in 1982 got off to a 2-0 start with wins over Kansas City and Minnesota.  Then, the players strike hit and the Bills were never quite right when play resumed.  Yes, they did get to 4-2, but then fell apart, losing their last three to finish 4-5 in the abbreviated season.

By now, Wilson began to meddle, and soon, the Chuck Knox Era in Buffalo was over.  The next year, under Kay Stephenson, the Bills would finish 8-8 with a talented team; a team that under Knox would have likely been 10-6.

Knox went to Seattle and turned the Seahawks into winners.  He took Seattle to the AFC Championship Game in his first year (1983) and in nine seasons in the Pacific Northwest won 80 games.

When you look at Knox, a couple of things stand out.  One is that he never lasted long in the unemployment line.  Next, was his ability to turn things around quickly. He revived the moribund Bills and breathed life into the expansion Seahawks, which before him had never made the playoffs.  After Knox left the Bills, they went 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14, before Marv Levy, Bill Polian, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith came to town to revive the downtrodden franchise.

After Knox left Seattle, they went seven seasons without a winning record.  Things didn’t turn around until Mike Holmgren came to town in 1999.

To me, Knox should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The naysayers will look at his record and poke holes in it, but that cat could coach.  His teams were always prepared and as a Bills fan in 1978-1982, you always thought a Chuck Knox coached team could win every time they stepped onto the field.

His 186 career wins are more than Levy and Bud Grant.  Sure, you can knock Knox for not reaching the Big One, but making it to a conference championship game is much harder than people think, both as a player and a coach.  Warren Moon never played in one; Dan Marino played in just three.

Knox should—at the very least–be on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.  The critics will point to his 37-36 overall record, but it is what he did in 1980 and 1981 that should be feted.  Before Knox the Bills never scared anybody, but he brought in guys that had swagger and in 1980, Western New York was “Talking Proud, “and linebacker Isiah Robertson “had a feeling that Buffalo was going to the Super Bowl.”

Knox’s success in Buffalo was short; the player’s strike was crippling as was a sour relationship with owner Wilson, but that should now be water under the bridge.  Except for Levy, Wilson always struggled with strong headed coaches.  Many Bills fans consider Lou Saban the greatest coach in the team’s history, yet he and Wilson battled often.  Levy, ever the diplomat was the only coach to be in the good graces of the former owner.

Saban is now on the Wall of Fame, so too, is Levy and it’s time for Knox to get his name up there where it belongs.  Those two seasons put Buffalo on the football map and Knox was the guy that made it happen.

Greatness comes in two ways—sustained and fleeting—and most pundits prefer sustained.  But in this case, I’ll take the fleeting.  I was kid in 1980 and 1981 and I remember the Bills going from laughingstock in the late 1970s to a threat in those two seasons.  For the first time in years, Sundays meant something once again to Western New York football fans and the main reason for that was Chuck Knox. His accomplishments are often drowned by the Super Bowl runs in the 1990s, but as a football fan, 1980 and 1981 were fun years to be a Bills backer.

It is time to recognize what Chuck Knox did for Buffalo Bills football.  Sadly, he won’t be around to see it.

 

 

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The Preakness Survives Another Year at Pimlico

May 17, 2018

They keep saying they’re going to move it, but for now, Old Hilltop keeps hanging on

by John Furgele (The Pure 228)

We all agree that the Preakness may be the “funnest,” of the three Triple Crown races and there are several reasons why.  First, as six-time winning trainer Bob Baffert says, it is the most relaxed of the three races.  The tension of getting a horse to the Derby healthy and ready is over.  That alone makes it more relaxing and fun.  Second, with the Derby over so, too is the end of the 20-horse field.  As Baffert stated, “we already have a Derby winner and because of that, this is more of a pure horse race.”  The Belmont is reliant on the Preakness and that can be good or bad.  The other mark against the Belmont is the 1.5 mile distance.  It certainly is the Test of a Champion, but it’s a distance that most horses run just once in their careers.  The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles is a true challenge—longer than the oft-contested 1 1/8 miles but shorter than the classic 1 ¼ miles.

The Preakness has always been dubbed the “People’s Race,” and unlike the more sophisticated Derby, there will be more people in flip-flops and wedges than high heels.  There will be thousands of young people drinking unlimited mugs of beer for $20 (plus the $100 admission fee) and bands will be rocking away on the infield stage.  The pretense of the Derby has given way to a lighter, less serious tone at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

That’s another issue—Pimlico.  The race course is old, falling apart, and is located in a tougher section of town.  It is only open for 12 days this year, and the Maryland Jockey Club would love to move the race to the nicer, Laurel Park.  Each year, the pundits will ask if this is the last Preakness to be run at Pimlico, but 365 days later, they’re back at Pimlico once again.

The main reason they keep coming back is Pimlico, despite the tough neighborhood and poor accessibility can handle 130,000 plus people, something Laurel can’t do.  Sure, they could run at Laurel in front of 50,000 or 70,000, but why do that when you can get 130,000 plus people to maneuver and wedge their way into NW Baltimore?  Until the MJC figures out how to make more money at Laurel, Pimlico will likely stick around.

The track likely needs $500 million in renovations to remain remotely viable and truth be told, it doesn’t make sense to make the improvements for 12, 24 or 36 days of racing when Laurel Park has already been renovated. Unless you’re Santa Anita, Del Mar or Saratoga, spending that much on renovations is hard to justify because most prefer to watch and wager off-track.

The Preakness might be the least serious and most fun of the three, but it is perhaps the most important.  The Belmont Stakes can only wait to see the outcome of this the middle jewel.  If Justify wins Saturday, the frenzy will begin; it will be three weeks of tension, anticipation and dizziness.  If Justify finishes anywhere but first, the Belmont remains a classic American race with a little less air in the excitement balloon.

The track always looks nice on TV on the third Saturday in May, but I’m not there trying to make bets, use the bathroom or get something to eat and drink.  I’m also a traditionalist; I would hate to see the race leave Pimlico because of the great history and drama.  But, I am also a realist; and if they can build a new Yankee Stadium and move the team across the street, then the Preakness can certainly move to Laurel, a mere 29 miles away from Old Hilltop.

The fans seem to be coming to Pimlico’s defense.  Last year, over 140,000 people attended to go along with over 50,000 for Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.  The fans are making it tough for the Maryland Jockey Club to just up and leave.

Some for now, let’s enjoy the lighter, “funner” race of the trilogy and see if Justify can make it to the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.

 

 

Horse Shortages: Are There Too Many Tracks

May 3, 2018

by John Furgele (The Worried 228)

They say that in spring, a “young man’s fancy turns to love.”  With April gone, winter is officially over, despite what the mercury reads.  May is perhaps the busiest month in the world of sports.  The NBA and NHL are deep into their playoffs; baseball is off and running, Major League Soccer is now in its 23rd season and can no longer be ignored.  NFL teams have just drafted and now will begin signing their picks that they made just a week ago.

Horse racing begins its Triple Crown with all eyes focused on the 20 horses that will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.  Harness racing is also in its busy season. With winter over, more tracks are preparing to open.  Places like Running Aces, Vernon, Tioga are raring to go or have just opened for the season.  On the surface, it looks like grand times for the sport, but in reality, that might not be the case.  Like every spring, the purses get better as does the weather, but not all share in that.  There is a horse shortage and one wonders how it can be addressed.

Buffalo Raceway is one of those winter tracks that have struggled in 2018 because of the shortage. It is a track for grinders that begins in January in cold and often snowy Hamburg, NY.  Most years, they run every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but this year, they have been limited.  Many cards were canceled and currently, the track is only running on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Larry Stalbaum took his horses away from Buffalo this winter which didn’t help, but that’s not the major reason for the truncated cards.

Monticello is another “grinder track.”  It races four days per week for 52 weeks.  But, it’s normal total of 207 days has been truncated by the horse shortage.  Quietly, the track removed Wednesday from its racing schedule and has been going on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  It is easier to get information from North Korea than it is Monticello Raceway, but surely the reduced schedule is due to the horse shortage.

Purses are also down at Monticello.  Races that were once run for $5,900 are now running for $5,200.  Like most tracks that are tied to racinos, the purses are based on percentages of gaming revenue.  Monticello has a racino on its grounds, but just six miles away is a full-fledged casino and though it is owned by the same company who knows the real impact it has had on the track and the purses that go with it.

The most affected by the shortage is the Meadowlands.  The Big M is still the handle leader with most races generating over $200,000 on the Friday and Saturday cards.  But, this Friday, there are only 9 races scheduled—-9!  For a track that only races two times per week, that is scary. Saturday’s card features the Cutler Memorial Trot for older horses for $182,000, but even that day, there are only 11 races on the Big M card.

We know that not all tracks are suffering and we know that the higher the purses are the more interest by the horsemen.  Yonkers’ Empire City Casino continues to flourish; to the point where Yonkers offers the highest purses.  Open paces and trots have purses of $40,000 while preferred ones have $30,000 purses.  The best drivers and trainers want to race there and who can really blame them.

Not all tracks are suffering from the shortage.  Northfield Park in NE Ohio continues to run 15 races per card with eight or nine in each race.  How do they do this?  The purses are not much better than a Buffalo Raceway, yet each racing night, there are 14 to 16 races with up to nine horses entered in each race over the half-mile oval.  Some of that has to do with state sponsored stakes races, called Sire Stakes, and Ohio seems to manage this well.  Unlike New York, Ohio staggers its harness racing schedule.  Northfield is the track that runs all year, but the purses are lower.  Scioto, Dayton and Miami Valley spilt the calendar in thirds to avoid overlap.

New York doesn’t do this.  Monticello and Yonkers are the 12-month tracks and it is overlap galore from then on.  They have Buffalo/Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga all running at the same time and with a horse shortage, how many times will Vernon have to cancel a card?

Nobody wants to see a harness track close or reduce dates, but what is the solution?  Laws in New York—and other states—state that a racino has to have harness racing, and each state’s gaming commission has to delicately balance the spreadsheets.  A track can’t just reduce racing dates unless the gaming commission approves.  We saw this at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts.  In 2017, they ran 125 cards; in 2018, they asked to run 100, in which the gaming commission said no.  The sides settled on 110 dates.

There seems to be more interest in owning Standardbreds.  There are more partnerships forming where one can own a horse for $250, $500 or $700.  While that number seems to be on the rise, the number of horses has decreased.  Incentives are nice, but they usually require some form of government subsidy; something most states have already given to harness racing.  Further subsidizing will not go over well with John and Jane Taxpayer.

New Jersey is suffering the most.  They have two racetracks—Freehold and the Meadowlands—but no gaming, and as a result, the incentive to breed in the Garden State has decreased.  Why breed in New Jersey when you can do it in New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania, all of which have purses and sire stakes money derived from racinos and casinos.  The two Jersey tracks complemented each other nicely.  Freehold was for horses on the way up or down, while the Meadowlands was for the big boys and girls.  It was always fun to see a horse do well at Freehold to the point where they would give Meadowlands a try.  The sport needs the Big M to be healthy and despite lower purses, the bettors still like the track.  But, how much longer can and will that last? Will the Meadowlands ever get a racino to help keep harness racing vibrant there?

Churchill Downs is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Meadowlands is the home of the Hambletonian.  That means something in horse and harness racing.  I hope our leaders remember this and come up with a plan that works.