Fixing Baseball Not That Hard

February 25, 2017

by John Furgele (The Greatest 228)

Baseball has been called the national pastime for generations, but in reality, it is more of a regional pastime.  In Boston and New York, callers will take to the airwaves and talk about who should be the fifth starter, the set-up guy and the backup catcher.  In Pittsburgh, the callers will talk about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s eventual replacement.

Baseball is doing fine, revenues continue to go up, crowds at the games are solid and regional TV ratings are also very good.  But, baseball will keep fighting in the hopes of getting back to its perch as the true national pastime.  On national sports talk radio, it doesn’t get as much run as it should.  For some reason, all the sports talkies think the NBA is more compelling and because of the individual superstar nature of the game, perhaps that’s correct.  LeBron James can have the ball in his hands most of a game and can score 45 points if he wishes.  Jordan did that, so too, did Bird, Magic and guys like Dominque Wilkins.  We know that baseball is not like that.  When Barry Bonds was at his best, he only batted four times per game and he was often walked all four times.  You can’t take ball away from James, but you could take the bat away from Bonds.

Baseball has gotten away from its real roots.  Nobody wants to read “the game was better back in my day,” so I will refrain from that.  But, baseball has changed and that is why Commissioner Rob Manfred is looking for ways to speed up the game.  We have heard the commissioner talk about using pitch clocks, making sure batters stay in the batter’s box and recently, eliminating having to throw four balls for an intentional walk.  These aren’t bad ideas, but they really don’t address the fundamental problems of what is wrong with the game.

The main concern here is how to speed up the game.  An average baseball games takes about three hours to play.  Is that really too long?  Football games take at least that long.  There was a time when Sunday NFL games started at 1 pm and 4 pm; now they begin at 1 pm and 4:25 pm during the regular season?  Why?  Because three hours is not enough time.  But, for some reason, the three hour baseball game has become a sort of persona non grata in the sports world.  There are many who say that there isn’t enough action for a baseball game to take three hours, but in reality, there isn’t much more action in football games.  Think about it.   A draw play that gains three yards versus a routine grounder to the shortstop—is there really that much difference?

Baseball’s biggest problem is the abundance of strikeouts during games. Don Mattingly said that much this week.  Baseball players are trying to hit home runs all the time and as a result, they are striking out at alarming rates.  Last year, Chris Carter, now a Yankee, batted .222 with 41 home runs and 94 RBI.  He struck out 206 times.  There was a time where no big leaguer had ever struck out 200 times in a season.  Even players like Dave Kingman and Rob Deer never did.  And, the game’s all-time strikeout leader Reggie Jackson never did either.  He struck out 2,507 times, but never more than 171 in one season.

There are just too many Chris Carters in the game right now.  He is a one-dimensional player.  He either hits it 550 feet or supplies a game’s worth of air conditioning to the fans.  In the 1980s, watching guys like Rob Deer and Dave Kingman were fun because you just didn’t know what they would do at the plate.  They could hit three home runs in a game or strike out three times.  Most teams had one Rob Deer or Dave Kingman on their teams, but today, there are often three or more per team.  The Miami Marlins have six of seven whiffers on their team and when guys can’t make contact, they see more pitches and the more pitches seen means more bullpen usage, less action and of course, time added to the games.

Baseball is trying to counter this by ignoring this.  Instead of teams trying to teach more contact, they are talking about making the strike zone smaller.  Because the players can’t make contact with an already small strike zone, the higher-ups believe that making it smaller will help create more contact hitting during a game.  All this will do is make the game longer.

The 1974 World Champion Oakland A’s struck out 876 times in their 162 games, an average of 5.4 per game.  In 6,048 plate appearances, that is 14 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games, had 550 at-bats (walks excluded), this would equate to 77 strikeouts for the season.

The 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs struck out 1339 times in their 161 games, an average of 8.3 times per game;  an astonishing 463 more times than the 1974 A’s.  For their 6335 plate appearances, that represents 21 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games and batted 550 times, a 21 percent strikeout rate would be 115, or 38 more than the player on the 1974 A’s.

Baseball needs to keep being proactive.  They need to get a younger fan base and they need to find ways to keep people off their smartphones and more engaged in the baseball product.  Reducing catcher’s trips to the mound can help, but putting the ball in play would help more.  Today, the Bucky Dent’s of the baseball world think they can hit 25 homers per year, and, in doing so, they strike out 133 times per season.  Reality would have that player hit 8 homers per year and strike out 67 times.

When the ball is in play, more can happen.  Scoring is down because strikeouts are up, yet baseball thinks they can increase scoring by shrinking the strike zone and speed up the game by installing pitch clocks.

It is always good to tinker with your product and try to improve it, but in the end, the game is the game.  Baseball is baseball and you can’t make radical changes.  Baseball will never have constant action like hockey and that’s fine. But, baseball is more constant than the other sports.  There are bad football games; games where the score is 3-3 deep into the fourth quarter.  Baseball, because of its innate nature usually avoids this.  It’s one of the reasons why the baseball All-Star Game resembles a regular game because you really can’t go half-speed in baseball.  In football, hockey and basketball, that happens and those games are more than snoozefests.

Baseball can do a better job of assembling its parts/teams.  When I was in high school (1982-1986), if you struck out too much, you usually sat on the bench with a ski hat on during games because you weren’t playing.  Now, that’s no longer the case because teams want that home run more than they want three singles to score that run.

I refer to the movie Major League when manager Lou Brown told Willie Mays Hayes to stop hitting balls in the air.  He told Hayes, “With your speed, you should be hitting the ball on the ground and legging’em out.”  If baseball can get back to that, the product will move faster and be of better quality.

Federer Continues to Marvel

February 2, 2017

by John Furgele (The Official 228)

Where are they?  Where did they go?  When will they arrive?  Are they even out there?  How much longer can this go on?

McEnroe stopped Borg.  Lendl stopped McEnroe.  Becker stopped Lendl and then Edberg and then Sampras stopped both of them.  It has happened for years, but for some reason, it no longer happens.

Roger Federer, at 35, is the Australian Open champion.  He is 35.  His opponent was 30-year old Rafael Nadal.  This, in a Grand Slam final.  Bjorn Borg retired in 1982 at age 26.  Why?  Because he knew that staying at the top would have required 10,000 more hours of blood, sweat and tears.  But, for some reason, this isn’t happening anymore.  Federer is still reaching—and winning—Grand Slam finals.  The man missed the last six months of 2016, and still, nobody could beat him.  Nadal, the finalist, had a rocky, injured plagued 2016, yet here he was, nearing 31 years of age, playing in the fifth set of the Aussie Open final.  The other guy with double-digit Grand Slam titles is Novak Djokovic and he will be 30 on May 22 right before the French Open begins.  And, just for nice, the fourth guy who has four Slams is Andy Murray, who turns 30 on May 15.

Where are the up-and-comers?  Marin Cilic?  Jo-Wilifred Tsonga?  Miles Raonic?  Kei Nishikori?  We keep waiting for them to breakthrough, to be the next big-thing, but it never happens.  Look at Tsonga.  Everybody says he has the game, has the fitness and has the tenacity, but seems to be the perpetual quarterfinalist and sometimes semifinalist.  He reached the Aussie final is 2008.  2008!  And, since, he is 0 for nine years.

Cilic won a US Open title, beating Nishikori, but since that, nothing.  In fact, both haven’t even advanced to a Grand Slam final.  Remember Juan Marin Del Potro.  He defiantly defeated Federer in a five-set US Open final, but injuries have taken its toll along with the fact that in a big spot he can’t beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

There have always been the big four, the big three or the big something.  In the mid to late 1970s, most of the slams were won by Borg, Connors and towards the end, McEnroe.  But you had a Guillermo Vilas who won four (he did win two Aussie titles when the big guns stayed away); you had Manual Orantes, Adriano Panatta and Roscoe Tanner who were able to snag a few Grand Slam titles along the way.  Now, you have Federer with 18 slams, Nadal with 14, Djokovic with 12 and Murray trailing with 4.  After that, you have a handful of players with one.

Borg’s last slam came at age 25 when he won the 1981 French Open.  He would later lose both the Wimbledon and US Open Finals to McEnroe and in 1982, he had retired. McEnroe, the superbrat from Queens never won another Grand Slam after 1984.  He was 25.

Ivan Lendl took over tennis in the late 1980s.  He won eight Grand Slam titles, and played in every US Open final from 1982-1989.  Lendl’s last slam title came at the 1990 Australian Open at age 27.

Stefan Edberg:  26.  Boris Becker:  28.  Jimmy Connors:  31.  Andre Agassi:  32.  Pete Sampras: 32.  Jim Courier 22.  These are the ages of the game’s best players when they won their last slam.  And, here is Federer—and on the ladies side—Serena Williams—winning titles at age 35.  What is going on?

Borg knew that to stay at least even with McEnroe, he would have train even harder, put in more hours, maintain an even stricter diet and in the end, it was something he didn’t want to do.  There comes a time when deep down, the player knows that he is past his peak and when that happens, retirement is not far away.

Connors was the only guy that really wanted to put the hours in.  He kept churning, training and churning some more.  We all remember his great run at the 1991 US Open when he reached the semifinals at age 39.  There, he was blitzed by Courier, but this was a guy defying Father Time.  After winning the US Open in 1983 (he turned 31 during the tournament), Connors never won another, and in fact, only made one other final, losing to McEnroe in the 1984 Wimbledon final.  He would play through 1992 and he would make some semifinals, but in tennis, there is a huge difference between losing in the semifinals and making the finals.

This is not a knock on the game’s greats, but rather, a testament to the immense talent that is Roger Federer.  Not only is Federer winning at age 35, he still dismisses lesser opponents along the way.  You can count on one hand how many times Federer failed to reach at the very least, a Grand Slam semifinal since breaking through at the 2002 Wimbledon Championships.

This could be Federer’s swan song.  He may go downhill quickly, but even if that’s the case, to win a Grand Slam final at age 35 is more than astonishing.  The other wild card is the competition.  Novak Djokovic has been the game’s dominant player in recent years but he now appears to be showing cracks in his armor.  He put so much into the career Grand Slam, and it appears that the 2016 French Open title has taken some steam out of him.  He was ousted early at Wimbledon and then was rolled by Wawrinka in the US Open final and then this year, in Melbourne, another early round exit. Has he reached his peak?

The 2016 tennis season just got a lot more interesting.  Federer has the first slam; Nadal looks like he is primed for a comeback and we all know that clay and the French Open is his best chance to win a 15th slam.  Murray will be defending his Wimbledon title and Wawrinka, with three slams is more than capable of a winning fortnight.  And, I certainly do not think Djokovic is done.

The question is where is the next wave and what I mean by that is when will we see four players not named Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic (and okay, Wawrinka) playing in the final four of a slam?  It has to happen, but it can’t happen when Federer is 40 and the others are 35.  It has always happened in tennis.  When Boris Becker powered his way to consecutive Wimbledon titles in 1985 and 1986 at ages 17 and 18, we thought that his raw power would carry him to multiple titles.  Becker won six slams, but was only 3-4 in Wimbledon finals, losing two of three to Edberg and then eventually being overpowered by a young lion named Pete Sampras.

The day comes when the young guy permanently removes the old guy from the perch of tennis, but as we just saw at the 2017 Australian Open, Roger Federer has decided to stay on the perch for at least a few more months.

Sorry Kansas City, You Gotta Have The Quarterback

January 21, 2017

Andy Reid, wildly successful in the regular season, continues to come up short in the playoffs

by John Furgele

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  That sums it up for the Kansas City Chiefs with yet another frustrating ouster in the NFL playoffs.  Is Andy Reid the second coming of Marty Schottenheimer?  You know, the guy wins 10 to 13 games per year in the regular season, but can’t get over in the playoffs?  In fairness to Reid, he did coach the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship Game appearances as well as one Super Bowl appearance, but time and time again, his troops come up short in big games in much the same way as Schottenheimer’s teams did in Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego.

The Chiefs are not only frustrating, they are agonizingly frustrating.  The dink and dunk their way and in the end, can never score enough points to win the big games.  Last year, they hung tough at New England, but settled for too many field goals and lost.  This year, even though they scored two touchdowns to Pittsburgh’s zero, quarterback Alex Smith threw 34 times to get 172 yards, a paltry 5.08 yards per attempt.  Pittsburgh kicked six field goals and still managed to win the game 18-16 to advance to the 2016 AFC Championship Game at New England while the Chiefs will be left scratching their heads for yet another off-season.

Why is it like this in professional sports?  Why do some teams do the same thing year after and time after time?  The Cleveland Browns were so close in 1986.  They had a seven point lead and had the Denver Broncos pinned at their own two-yard line.  The Broncos drove 98 yards to tie it and won the game in overtime.  The next year, they had taken over the AFC Championship Game at Denver.  Down 38-31, they were driving for the tying touchdown only to have Ernest Byner fumble at the Denver two.  The franchise hasn’t recovered.  Their coach:  Marty Schottenheimer.

The Kansas City Chiefs just can’t get over the hump.  Like the New York Jets, they won one of the first Super Bowls when they beat the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl 4, but since then, they haven’t done much.  They reached the 1993 AFC Championship Game and were buried by the Buffalo Bills; most of the time, they bow out in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

Marty Schottenheimer took over the Chiefs in 1989.  In 10 seasons, he guided them to the playoffs seven times, but only once (1993) did they reach the AFC Championship Game.  The 1995 team was loaded at 13-3 but played conservatively in a 10-7 home divisional round loss to Indianapolis. The 1997 team was also 13-3, but lost in the divisional round at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

Andy Reid usually wins games the way he lost on Sunday.  He tries to minimize mistakes, likes to settle for and kick field goals and wins white knuckler affairs.  On Sunday, he was out done by six field goals by his opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In four seasons Reid has won plenty of football games.  His Chiefs have made the playoffs three times and his record is a sparkling 43-21.  You don’t fire guys with records like that, but do guys like Reid win Super Bowls?

Reid uses the dink and dunk approach on offense.  In the regular season, that works fine, but in the playoffs, not so much.  It’s the opposite of baseball.  In that sport, the teams that slug home runs all regular season usually get beaten in the playoffs by teams that “dink and dunk and play small ball.” And, we know that great pitching beats great hitting.  Is Reid too conservative, ala Schottenheimer, or were both men plagued by not having the great quarterback?

Alex Smith is also one of those enigma guys.  He wins games; he plays smart, minimizes mistakes, and is labeled as a good game manager.  The problem with game managers is that in the playoffs, you sometimes need your quarterback to go out and win the game for you.  Smith doesn’t have that in him.  He’s not going to do what Aaron Rodgers did at Dallas.  He can’t do what Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger do and that’s throw two picks but still get you over the top.  People forget that in Super Bowl 49, Brady threw two picks and still guided the Pats to victory.

Today’s NFL requires the great quarterback.  Since 2006, all the Super Bowls have been won by Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco.  The first five are Hall of Fame locks and Wilson and Flacco still have time to get there.  There are no aberrations on that list.  Back in the day, you could win a Super Bowl with Jim Plunkett, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Jim McMahon and Doug Williams, but no more.  This year’s final four proves that with Brady and Roethlisberger in the AFC and Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC.  Many teams think they are close and think they can sneak their way to a title with an Alex Smith or a Brock Osweiler but we all know better.  Peyton Manning won one on guile, but that was all-time great guile.   You can surround your team with great runners, receivers and defensive players, but as the Chiefs found out, you have to win the games with your offense and for three plus quarters, the Chiefs had 10 points and were losing to a team that was doing nothing more than kicking field goals.  Smith is a solid quarterback; you’re not going to find anybody better quickly, but you’re not going to win the Super Bowl with him.  You’ll make the playoffs three of every four years, but you will torture your fans in the process.  It is football purgatory.

If you’re the Philadelphia Eagles and the Oakland Raiders, you pray that you’ve found your man.  If you’re the Indianapolis Colts, you think you have your quarterback, but you know that the window is closing unless you fortify him with a better supporting cast.  The same goes for the Baltimore Ravens.  You have a Super Bowl winning QB in Joe Flacco, yet you think he is better than he really is.  He isn’t Aaron Rodgers, so get a running back to help him.  That worked for John Elway at the end of his career.  He didn’t have to win the games; he could let his offensive line and Terrell Davis help him.

If you’re the Bills, you know you can’t win with Tyrod Taylor, but you also know that the next quarterback won’t be as good.  The Jets, the Browns, the Cardinals can all relate.  The Bengals and Redskins have decent quarterbacks, but are they good enough?  Both have made playoff appearances, but neither has won a playoff game.  They’re both good enough to keep their jobs, but not good enough to win the Lombardi trophy.

Since 1986, the Chiefs had made the playoffs 14 times; 14 times in 30 seasons, roughly every other year.  To me, a great season is ensured if the franchise reaches a conference championship game and in those 14 appearances, the Chiefs have made one.  And, their quarterback?  Joe Montana; an aging Montana, but Montana nonetheless at the ripe old age of 37.

That was 23 years ago.

All In All, A Good Run For Chris Berman

January 13, 2017

by John Furgele (Your 228)

ESPN announced last week that Chris Berman will no longer be their main NFL guy.  Berman (along with Bob Ley) is an ESPN original; he has been with the network since its inception in 1979.  In summation, Berman—love him or hate him—will be missed.

Berman was quick to point out that he is not retiring; he will still work for ESPN and will not be riding off into the sunset.  Berman’s longevity represents a lot when it comes to broadcasting.  The more one stays in the business, the more polarizing they become.  His supporters loved the shtick, the nicknames, the exasperated, running-out-of-breath end to sentences along with his natural enthusiasm.  His detractors, which seemed to grow with each passing year, will point to his notice me style, his calling himself The Swami and his constant need to be noticed and validated.

When ESPN began, it needed to be different.  Most thought there was no way that a 24-hour sports network could make it.  What would they show?  Where would they get their highlights from?  How many sports could they show?  In the 1970s, sports were confined to the weekends.  If you liked baseball, you had the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC and Monday Night Baseball on ABC.  If you were lucky to live near a major league team, there was a chance that a game might be shown on a Wednesday night, but other than that, you watched what you were given.

I grew up in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area.  In the 1970s, we had the above mentioned baseball games to watch.  We also got see Montreal Expos games broadcasted on the CBC, and in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays aired on CBC and then the CTV network.  The NHLs Buffalo Sabres aired on Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate and back in the day, Channel 2 would show anywhere from 30 to 40 games.  We also had the NBA Buffalo Braves that aired on Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate.  The rest of the time, you had your radio and believe it or not, life was pretty good if you were a sports fan.  On the weekends, you could catch college football, college basketball, bowling, skiing and even some hockey and ABCs Wide World of Sports was a must watch.

Cable TV began making noise in the mid-1970s, and by 1979, ESPN debuted.  They didn’t have access or the rights to the “Big Four,” sports, so we got to see a lot of Canadian football, Australian Rules football and other bizarre events.  College basketball is what put ESPN on the map with help from the then bespectacled Dick Vitale.  ESPN helped grow college basketball to the point where filling out one’s bracket has become a staple in just about every office in America.

Berman was the charismatic one.  His nicknames for baseball players were funny and legendary.  Butch “Oil and Wynegar, Jerry “Rolls” Reuss, Steve “Alto” Sax and Jim “Two Silhouettes on” Deshaises pop into mind.  My favorite remains Ernest “I can see for riles and” Riles.  Critics pointed out that Berman was more clown and less “serious journalist,” so eventually, the nicknames faded away.  For me, it was an example of taking sports too seriously, but part of sports being taken as such is because of ESPN.  Now, you can’t just watch the game, you have to dissect it to the point of nausea.

Berman and Tom Jackson were Sunday night staples.  They showed highlights of every single game and it was something that many fans looked forward to.  It isn’t easy watching football from 1 pm to 7:30 pm each Sunday, but finding those 60 minutes to see Boomer and Jackson—from Louisville—was easy and a fun thing to do.  In 2006, the NFL forbade ESPN to show highlights and for the last ten years, Berman—and ESPN—have become less relevant.  The NFL Network has contributed to this as has Sunday Night Football on NBC.  They have the rights and because of this, ESPN’s role—and Berman’s—has diminished.  But, the highlight shows have not matched the quality that they were when ESPN carried them.

ESPN is struggling as more and more people continue to cut cable.  ESPN receives about $7.25 of everybody’s cable or satellite bill, by far the most of any network.  The second most expensive network gets about $1.65.  If you love sports, ESPN is a bargain, but if you don’t it can help justify ditching cable for a cheaper alternative.  Because of this, ESPN decided that it might be the right time to cut some expensive talent.  In addition to reducing Berman’s role—and salary—they have seen Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless leave for Fox and have cut tons of staff in recent months.  The day is going to come where the right fees bubble will burst.  ESPN pays $2 billion per year to show Monday Night Football; $2 billion!   They pay Jon Gruden $6.5 million per year to broadcast one game per week, so there is no wonder why Gruden won’t take another coaching job is there?  Armageddon is not yet here as ESPN recently extended the Monday Night Football deal through 2021 for $15.2 billion.  But, when ESPN takes $10 or $11 from your bill, what will happen?  The diehards will pay $144 per year for sports, but will the spouses? The non-sports fan?  The young people living on their own for the first time?  And, as more people cut cable, what will ESPN do to re-invent itself?

They are trying to improve streaming in the hopes that they can hook and more importantly retain young people, but you can’t watch Monday Night Football on your phone as ESPN won’t allow it.  Even though they produce all the sports that air on ABC, they won’t put the major bowl games there as they try to force one’s hand into a cable subscription.  The Rose Bowl, the 5 pm New Year’s Day staple that aired for decades on NBC and then ABC  is now exclusively on ESPN, along with the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game.

Berman will still be a presence going forward at ESPN.  The one bad move announced is that Berman will call a MLB Division Series for ESPN Radio.  Berman has lots of qualities, but play-by-play is not one of them.  Once a staple on baseball, he really does nothing with the sport all year and then jet-sets in for the playoffs.  And, saying he is terrible is being kind.  Why ESPN allowed this to be in his next contract is beyond puzzling.

Berman is one of the last giants in broadcasting.  The days of Howard Cosell are over, the bombastic “notice-me,” personalities are just about done.  Today’s network voices are much more subdued with Jim Nantz (CBS), Joe Buck (Fox), Al Michaels and Bob Costas (NBC).  Berman no longer fit the modern day profile and it was that and his age that is doing him in.  Could Berman have promised to tone things down for a three-year contract?  Perhaps, but it would not have been the same and we would have been sad to see a tamer Chris Berman.  He has aged before our eyes, his hair thinner, his waistline bigger, but his on-air personality has remained; for some that’s good, others bad.  For me, a good thing.

John Skipper heads ESPN and he has made it clear that it is his goal to cut costs and offer a great product.  The network has taken on many political issues and some accuse it of leaning too much to the left.  The sports fan hates this, he/she watches sports to escape real life, but the fact remains that there aren’t enough sports fans to drive huge ratings.  When Skipper let Mike Tirico leave for NBC, his motives were clear.  Replacing Berman was on Skipper’s agenda before he accepted the position.

There is no need to feel sad or bad for Berman.  In an era of job switching, Berman lasted at one company for 38 years—and he is not done yet—and that is commendable.





Bills Should Change Name Until They Make The Playoffs

January 1, 2017

by John Furgele (The 228, Accept No Imitations)

The Buffalo Bills have not made the playoffs for 17 seasons.  For those who struggle with math, the last playoff appearance occurred in 1999 in a game that was played in January, 2000.  To further depress Bills fans that game ended with the “Home Run Throwback or as others call it, “The Music City Miracle,” when the Tennessee Titans’ Lorenzo Neal fielded the kickoff, pitched to Frank Wychek who then threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson who ran down the left sideline unscathed for the winning score.

Imagine that.  That’s a fan’s last playoff memory.  I hate to do this, but that was also the year that Doug Flutie started 15 games, went 10-5 and then sat out the meaningless finale.  In the finale, backup Rob Johnson shredded the Indianapolis Colts so impressively, that owner Ralph Wilson told head coach Wade Phillips to start Johnson in the playoff game.  Johnson didn’t play well in the AFC Wild Card Game, but he had the Bills up 16-15 before the Bills’ special teams broke down and that miraculous play occurred.

This offseason will be a tumultuous one for the team I call the Buffaloes (the Fighting Buffaloes after a win).  From 2000-2016, the Bills have never been 2-14 pitiful, but they have been 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 mediocre.  In the NFL, this is called spinning your wheels; never bad enough to tear it down, never good enough to get over the hump to 10 or 11 wins that, in the NFL, will get you into the playoffs.

The fans have been loyal and for the most part, patient.  Teams that are 8-8 give fans false hope each and every year.  You know the fan’s mantra.  “If we can find a way to win that Raiders game and that Ravens game, we’re 10-6 and we’re in.”  Others might say, “If we can keep Sammy Watkins on the field for 16 games, that’s the two to three wins we need to get in.”

The Bills have tinkered and tinkered for 16 seasons.  Different coaches, different GMs, different QBs.  Marv Levy retired, came back to help, and then retired again.  At age 91, I think it is safe to say that he will stay retired.  Owner Ralph Wilson retired permanently when he left to meet his maker.  Doug Marrone coached the Bills to a 9-7 record in 2014, but because he couldn’t play nice with GM Doug Whaley exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and took an assistant coaches job at Jacksonville.  Think about that head scratcher.  He demoted himself!

Jim Kelly retired in 1996 and the Bills have been searching for his true successor ever since.  Again, for those with math deficiencies, that’s 20 seasons.  The Bills have been in the AFL and NFL since 1960 and its list of franchise quarterbacks is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  How many “good” quarterbacks have they had?  Personally, I would label it at three.  There was Jack Kemp and statistically he was average at best, but he was a leader of men (as we saw later when he ran for Vice President) and led the Bills to back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 under legendary coach Lou Saban.

There was Joe Ferguson from 1973-1984.  Fergy was tough as nails and was adored by most Bills fans.  In the early days, his main job was to hand the ball off to O.J. Simpson and that worked well.  The Bills went 9-5 in 1973 and 1974.  They made the playoffs in ’74, losing 32-14 to a team that was preparing to start its dynasty, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The 1975 team went 8-6 and after two bad seasons in 1977 and 1978 and a 7-9 record (they were 7-6 after 13 games) in 1979, the team made back-to-back playoff appearances in 1980 and 1981. Fergy gets credit for longevity (12 seasons) and of course toughness.  He played the 1980 AFC Divisional Playoff Game with a broken ankle (a 20-14 loss).

Kelly (1986-1996) would be the third franchise QB as he led the Bills through the glory years, an era that saw Buffalo play in five AFC Championship Games (don’t forget 1988 and then 1990-1993), four Super Bowls and eight playoff appearances in those 11 seasons.  Many of us thought that the good times would be here for years to come as the Bills had become an organization that just re-tooled and reloaded rather than rebuilt every year.

After missing the playoffs in 1997, the Bills came back for two appearances in 1998 and 1999 with Doug Flutie working his magic.  Some may want to call Flutie the fourth franchise quarterback, but I will refrain for two reasons.  One, it was too small of a sample size; two, the Bills did everything in their wake to discredit him and not play him, always wanting someone else to be the guy.  But, if you want to count him, that’s fine. The main point, three or four in 57 seasons of play is not very good.

The Bills have tons of decisions to make this winter.  They have to pick a coach, decide if Tyrod Taylor is worth $90 million as well as determine the hierarchy in the front office.  Do they tear it down and start from scratch and suffer a 4-12 season or two? Or do they subtly tinker hoping that they can get that 10-win season and start making some playoff appearances?

Here’s what they should do?  Change their name for the 2017 season in the hopes that this record of futility ends.  The name:  Rochester Jeffersons.  Rochester is part of Bills Nation.  A good percentage of Bills fans come from the Rochester area.  The Rochester media covers the team full-time.  The Bills are as much as Rochester’s team as they are Buffalo’s, so changing the team name would be fine.  The Buffalo area fans might be hurt by this, but it would only be temporary, a year, maybe two; or until they make the playoffs.  And, the Bills hold their training camp at Saint John Fisher College, right outside the Flower City (Rochester).

Changing the name to Rochester Jeffersons would also evoke history.  The Jeffersons played in the NFL from 1922-1925.  In those four seasons, they never won a game, going 0-21-2, but in fairness they played most of their games on the road.  So, things can only go up when they go back in time and become the Rochester Jeffersons.

The only fly in the ointment would be if the Jeffersons enjoy immediate success.  What if they go 11-5 and win the Super Bowl because of the name change?  The tides would be turned, so if they go back to the Buffalo Bills, things could revert to this current period of futility. Would those in Greater Buffalo want their name back and run the risk of returning to their current mediocre ways?

The sooner this change is made, the better.  Let the success run rampant!





Stay or Go? NHL Faces Tough Decision.

December 30, 2016

by John Furgele (The 228 You Can Trust)

Believe it or not, the 2018 Winter Olympics are just one year away and before you know it, South Korea will be the focus of the sports world. The games are great as sports like bobsleigh, luge and skiing get some much-needed attention. But, for the hard-core sports fan, the games are about international hockey. And, the $64,000 question; will the NHL allow its players to play?

Right now, the answer would be no. Let’s be frank, the league really doesn’t want to send its players to the games. The reasons are obvious. First, do they really want to stop their season for two weeks like they have since 1998? Second, do they want to run the risk of a star player to getting hurt (John Tavares, 2014) in what really is a glorified all-star tournament? Third, is the debate over who should pay their costs and insurance over Olympic participation? The league itself doesn’t believe they should pay. Since the International Ice Hockey Federation runs the Olympics, they think the IIHF should absorb the costs and the IIHF disagrees. The league might be willing to the let the players go if the NHLPA pays the freight, something that the players are naturally opposed to.

There are, of course, reasons to play. Hockey is not football; in fact; of the major four sports, it is definitively fourth in popularity, TV ratings and revenues. Football is king by a wide margin with basketball and baseball running nip-and-tuck for second and third. Hockey is out of the medals popularity-wise, so having center stage at the Olympics has merit. The middle of February is the dead time for sports. The NBA (and NHL) is months away from their playoffs; football is over and baseball players haven’t started Spring Training. Olympic hockey is going to get attention by default, but nonetheless, it is going to get it. In 2014, both Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with each USA game, something that doesn’t happen when the Stars play the Red Wings on Valentine’s Day.

The fact that the NHL is the only league that suspends its season for the Olympics doesn’t sit well with the owners. It makes the league look amateurish and as we know, public image and perception is very important. Basketball doesn’t do it, and even if the games weren’t during its off-season, they still wouldn’t. Baseball was taken out of the Olympics because MLB wouldn’t send its players and the debate rages as to whether or not to bring it back. Baseball will be back for the 2020 Tokyo Games, but after that, we shall see.

Does stopping one’s season for the Olympics cheapen your sport? Is the attention the sport receives at the Olympics worth the break?   Does stopping your season make it look like the Stanley Cup is not the ultimate prize each and every season?

These are all tough questions. For the most part, players love representing their country at the Olympic games and most international tournaments. That said this summer’s World Cup of Hockey really didn’t give off the passion and enthusiasm that other world tournaments have done. There are certainly enough world events for the sport of hockey. The IIHF World Championships are contested every year, but is played during the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs and buried eight feet deep in matters of importance. If Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins are in the playoffs he is not playing. And, if they aren’t, he might want to take the time off to rest from a grueling campaign.

The world championship is always played in May during the playoffs, and even though it occurs after most European seasons have ended, I have always found its calendar placing curious. Could they move it to late June in order to get more stars involved? That said, with 14 teams not making the NHL playoffs, there are enough available bodies to field teams for Canada and the United States; back when only 5 of 21 didn’t qualify, things were much tougher.

If the NHL has its way, the World Cup of Hockey would take over as the premier world championship event.   The NHL would love it of course because they own it. They can market it, sell the TV rights and more importantly control the revenues.   The NHL players would benefit too, because the collective bargaining agreement allows them to share revenues with the league. The IIHF would stand to lose of course, and that’s something that the NHL—and probably the players—wouldn’t shed many tears about. But, the IIHF is not going anywhere. They will still support Olympic hockey, junior hockey as well as many other tournaments and leagues.

So, what is the best solution? Should the Olympics go back to its core and showcase amateurs? Those who are of age remember with fondness the 1980 Miracle on Ice and many would like to see the Olympic tournament have a chance to once again replicate that. As good as that might sound, only the USA and Canada would oblige. The rest of the countries would send players from its professional leagues because they can, so you would have North American juniors and collegians playing against players from the Swedish Elite League, Russia’s KHL and the Finnish league. Sounds like what USA did in 1980, but it isn’t 1980 anymore.

If it were up to me, I would allow the Olympics to remain professional, but I would stock USA and Canada rosters with players from the AHL (and ECHL if necessary). The AHL would keep playing, because, as a minor league, it is not a win-at-all-cost endeavor. And with 30 teams to stock 40 players, most AHL teams would lose one, perhaps two players. Some would lose none. The AHL season would go on and the Olympic product would still be of high quality.   The costs could be split between USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and the IIHF and the insurance premium would be lower because AHL players don’t make the salaries that NHL players do.

The NHL has to make a decision, a long-term one. One of the reasons they are balking in 2018 is location. With the games being in South Korea, the time difference is considerable (14 hours ahead of NYC; 17 ahead of LA) and many of the games will air at inconvenient times for North Americans. If the Olympics were in Chicago, Toronto or why not, Lake Placid, the NHLers would likely be signed up already. That’s the one thing the NHL can’t do. It would be wrong and insulting to send the NHLers in one Olympics and then keep them home in another. The league has to make a commitment one way or another.

Sending the AHL players is the hybrid plan, but it’s also the right plan.

Despite Potato Bowl Win, FCS Still The Right Spot for Idaho Vandal Football

December 23, 2016

by John Furgele (Your One and Only 228)

There are lots of bowl games in this great land of ours—lots of them—and most sit in obscurity.  And this year even the Orange, Cotton, Sugar and Rose Bowl, because of the College Football Playoff, have diminished in relevance.

Yesterday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Potato Bowl for short) carried a little more intrigue than most because the University of Idaho was one of the participants.  In case you’ve forgotten—and most of you never knew—Idaho is going to play one more year at the FBS level and then move to FCS in 2018.  They will be the first school to drop DOWN to FCS since the divide began back in the late 1970s.

Naturally, the move down has caused some hurt feelings in Idaho Nation.  Several key boosters said that they no longer will donate; others have surrendered their season tickets while others have hit the message boards to voice both displeasure and support for the move.  We live in a polarized society; a society that currently embraces protests and temper tantrums.  When we don’t get our way, we yell, dehumanize and denigrate all in our way.  The 2016 election proved this beyond a doubt and we see it sports all the time.

For some, moving from FBS to FCS is an insult, something that can’t be recovered from.  As a result, that $100,000 donation and the season tickets all go by the wayside.  Any move like this causes hurt feelings, and even though Idaho finished 9-4 this season and trounced Colorado State, 61-50 in the Potato Bowl shouldn’t be a reason for pause.

After the game, several made the case that Idaho can contend at the FBS level.  Quarterback Matt Linehan, who threw for 381 yards and was named the game’s MVP said that university President Chuck Staben is “tone-deaf,” and that the Vandals belong in FBS.  He later apologized numerous times for his comments, so I am willing to forgive and move forward; I’m sure others are not.

Despite the impressive win and a chance that the Vandals will be solid again next year, the move to FCS is a smart one.  We must remember that the Sun Belt Conference kicked Idaho out, leaving the Vandals without a conference come 2018.  Geographically, the best landing spot for Idaho would be the Mountain West, but that conference hasn’t shown eagerness, or more importantly, an invitation for membership.

Idaho could stay and play as an independent like BYU and Notre Dame do, but Idaho is not BYU or Notre Dame, schools with a national following.  Massachusetts is currently playing—and struggling– as independent and that’s what life would be like for Idaho if they stay at the FBS level.

Many people think moving to FBS is a no-brainer; a cash cow but reality begs otherwise.  During ESPN’s telecast last night, the announcers said that 84 percent of FBS teams lose money playing football.  These costs are offset by student fees, contributions from alumni, boosters and taking money from other divisions, so we all know that the cash cow doesn’t exist for schools like Idaho and Massachusetts as well as the other team that the Sun Belt is kicking out after 2017; New Mexico State.

Idaho football head coach Paul Petrino makes less than the Strength and Conditioning coach at Alabama does and if Idaho stays at the FBS level, they would never be able to pay the head coach the million dollar salaries that the 16 percenters do.  Idaho is a school that hires up-and-comers to coach.  You know who they are.  The FCS coach, the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, the guy trying to re-launch his career after getting fired somewhere else.

Petrino has been supportive of the move and has stated that he will be the coach in 2018 when the Vandals move back to FCS.  He appears to be sincere, but I’m not sure he really is and you know what?  I can’t blame him.  He’s a guy who wants to coach FBS football and he was hired to do just that at the University of Idaho.  Now, things have changed and if wants to pursue other FBS opportunities, who could really be mad or upset at him?

The best quality we can have is to know ourselves.  It is not easy.  People with short tempers like to call themselves patient.  People that run with the wrong people like to think they are good judges of character.  Very few people can admit their flaws and weaknesses.  Idaho is trying to admit that FBS football isn’t right for them and as hard as that is, they are looking in the mirror and making that difficult decision; in essence, admitting their flaws and weaknesses.

For Idaho football, moving to FCS is and still is the right move.  It is an exciting level of football and if we look around the NFL and the CFL, rosters are littered with FCS players.  Idaho doesn’t have the monies or the facilities to play and succeed long-term at the FBS level.  They have the Kibbie Dome, a great venue for FCS football.  They will play in the Big Sky conference against the likes of Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Cal-Poly, Eastern Washington, and North Dakota.  In 2016, the Big Sky sent four teams to the 24-team FCS playoffs.  Even at the FCS level, Idaho will have to work and work hard to be successful.

The Vandals will lose monies in guarantee games because FCS teams get less to play at Washington than FBS teams, but there’s still room for Idaho to play at Washington State.  Instead of getting $1.1 million, they might get $550,000, but that money can still help and as long as FBS teams schedule FCS teams, teams like Idaho can play them and make the guarantee money.

The hope is that time will heal the wounds; that the boosters and the fans come back and support Idaho at the FCS level.  I’ll be rooting for the Vandals in 2017 and will be really rooting for them come 2018 when they return (they played FCS before) to FCS and the Big Sky conference.

We need our country to heal and hopefully that healing will carry over to the Idaho football nation and community.  Idaho’s chance of success increases greatly as an FCS member in the Big Sky than it does as an FBS independent.

The sooner Idaho fans realize this, the sooner the healing begins.

Honesty The Best Policy for College Football Playoff

December 4, 2016

by John Furgele (The 228)

Before the tirade begins, let me be fair.  At the end of the day, I don’t have any problems with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington being the four participants in the third version of the College Football Playoff.  We all know Alabama is the best team; we know that Clemson, based on talent and what they did last year can play with the Tide; we know that Ohio State at 11-1 is a quality team and we know that Washington, with 10 victories against Pac 12 teams is deserving of a slot.

All that said the CFP committee needs to be honest going forward.  The reality is that the CFP admires beauty and the better the record, the more the beauty.  What the CFP told us is that they really don’t value head-to-head, conference titles and strength of schedules.  Washington, to their credit, played 10 Pac 12 teams and beat nine of them; Ohio State went to Oklahoma and routed the Sooners; Clemson beat both Auburn and South Carolina (usually a good team).  At the end of the day, the less losses the better.  The CFP wants teams to look pretty; they (and college football) want to advertise that every week matters and if you slip up more than once, you will get punished.  Therefore, taking an 11-2 team like Penn State isn’t as good as taking the 11-1 Ohio State team.  By beauty’s definition, Ohio State is the better looking hottie.  She’s the 25-year old blond with the better curves than Penn State, the 30-year old who also is easy on the eye.  If they take a two-loss team, they are, in effect, devaluing what they think is the most important regular season in all of sports, so they won’t take a two-loss conference champion with a head-to-head win over a team that has only one loss.

Washington won the Pac 12 and in doing so, went 9-1 against Pac 12 teams.  They are a very good team and I won’t hold their scheduling of Rutgers against them.  Rutgers, by definition, is a Power 5 school.  But, Idaho?  The Vandals are a struggling program, so much so, that they have been kicked out of the Sun Belt and will be dropping to FCS at the beginning of the 2018 season.  The Huskies also played FCS foe Portland State, so to say the Huskies challenged themselves in their nonconference would be a falsehood.  That said, Alabama plays an FCS school every year, too, so who is better here?

Power 5 schools should not be allowed to schedule FCS schools anymore.  Let FCS schools play the Group of 5 schools.  There is nothing wrong with Bowling Green playing North Dakota; nothing wrong with Villanova playing Temple, but why do we have to see Alabama hosting Chattanooga the week before Thanksgiving so they can tune up and rest before facing Auburn?  There are too many “good games” out there for this to happen and if Alabama played Michigan rather than Charleston Southern, then it might be okay to see some two loss or even three loss teams make the CFP.

Since winning conference titles doesn’t really mean that much, let’s eliminate conference championship games.  They don’t help, in fact, they can cause more damage.  If Clemson and Washington would have lost to Virginia Tech and Colorado, they would have been out of the CFP.  In contrast, wins by the Buffaloes and Hokies would not have gotten them in either, so what’s the point?  Furthermore, had Alabama lost to Florida, the Tide would have still made the CFP cut.  Again, why bother?

Not only should conference championship games be eliminated, so too, should divisions.  Line everybody up one through 14, one through 12, and one through 10.  The English Premier League lines them up one through 20, so lining them up one through 14 is easier than pie.  Having divisions is artificial anyways.  Look at the SWAC at the FCS level for example.  Grambling won its division at 9-0, one game better than 8-1 Southern, yet Grambling played Alcorn State in the conference title game; an Alcorn State team that was 5-5 overall and 5-4 in its division.  Had the teams been lined up, Grambling would have faced the better Southern team in the SWAC Championship Game.

The conferences could protect the classic rivalries like Ohio-State/Michigan, but lining the teams up and playing nine conference games (time for SEC and ACC to get on board) will yield a conference title clash between the two best teams.  Using this formula, you wouldn’t have seen Penn State and Wisconsin, arguably the third and fourth best teams playing in the Big Ten Championship Game.  Nor, would you see it in the SWAC for that matter.

Ohio State and Penn State went 8-1 in the Big Ten, while division winner Wisconsin went 7-2.  Using this common sense formula, the Big Ten title game should have been a rematch between the Buckeyes and Lions and the ACC should have pitted Louisville and Clemson for the second time as both teams had 7-1 conference records.  I used to be against rematches, but not anymore.  If Ohio State and Penn State have the best records, then let a rematch take place.  It happens all the time in college basketball and it can happen in the NFL; why should college football be immune from it?

Eliminating the divisions and the conference title games is the right thing to do.  Let all the schools play 12 games and then use the eye-test to pick the four best teams.  Essentially, that’s what they did this year even though they paid lip service to the overall resume of teams.

The other thing this could do is get the season over on Thanksgiving Saturday.  Then, Navy could play Army on the first Saturday in December and the next day could be Selection Sunday.  Had Navy routed Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, there was a possibility that the CFP committee would have waited until December 11th to release its final rankings.  Nobody wants that, so let’s fix it.

Most agree that within a “few years,” the CFP will go from four to eight teams, but as Lee Corso says, “not so fast my friend.”  As evidence, take the fans’ reactions to the conference championship games.  There were seats to be had in Indianapolis (Big Ten), Orlando (SEC) and Santa Clara (Pac 12).  Some fans stated that they just couldn’t afford it financially, and take time off from work to hit three games in December and January.  In an eight-team playoff using neutral sites, you’d be asking fans to travel three times.  Is that feasible?  Perhaps, but the best solution would be for seeds 1 through 4 to host the quarterfinals and then use the neutral sites for the semifinals and finals.  This keeps the price up as bowls/sites would continue to shower money at college football for the right to host these games.

The four team playoff has much going for it, and right now, it doesn’t need to be overhauled or radically changed, just tweaked.  Eliminating divisions, conference championship games and games against FCS schools would be a simple and easy tweak.  It would also reduce the amount of lying that comes from the suits that run the College Football Playoff and that too, would be nothing but a positive.



College Football Needs To Do Better

November 23, 2016

by John Furgele (Accept the Only 228)

When conference championship games were created in college football, it was win-win, a pure moneymaker for the SEC, the league that started them.  The only problem is the games themselves.  In the inaugural SEC title tilt, undefeated Alabama faced 8-3 Florida.  If Alabama won, they would play in the Sugar Bowl against number one ranked Miami.  But, there was risk involved.  If the 8-3 Gators had won, they would have secured the conference’s automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl with no shot of a national championship, both for themselves and their league.  The SEC suits sitting in the press box had to be in total panic as it looked like Florida might pull the game—and the title—out.

In the end, Alabama won in a game for the ages, so much so that ESPN did a 30 for 30 on it.  The Gators won the Gator Bowl to finish 9-4 and Gene Stallings’ Crimson Tide blew out Miami to finish 13-0 to earn the national championship in college football.

The game was so successful, that every conference decided to expand to at least 12 members and stage their own conference title clash; even the Big 12 played one.  And, the stodgy Big Ten went against “longstanding traditions” to establish one for their 12 and now 14-team league.

Americans love football and because these games normally pit two excellent teams against each other, it continues to be a win-win, right?  Well, that all depends on how you perceive things.  The College Football Playoff has created many things; among them, angst.  Prior to the BCS and CFP, the winner of the conference title game went to the conference’s designated bowl game.  If 9-3 Georgia beat 11-1 Alabama, then Georgia went to the Sugar Bowl, while an 11-2 Alabama likely went to another top tier game like the Orange or Fiesta.  Now, the conference leaders are forced to root for the team with the better record.  Assuming Alabama beats Auburn and Florida (and this is a questionable assumption) beats Florida State, Alabama and Florida would be 12-0 and 10-2 when they get together in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.  Florida could very well be 9-3.

What hat does the SEC wear in this one?  Alabama is the best team; they could probably lose and still get one of the four CFP bids.  Florida, by winning would be guaranteed a New Year’s Six bowl, but is this what the commissioners wanted when they set up these title games?  At the end of the day, the SEC wants its best team, its undefeated team in the CFP as the number one seed.  They don’t want to see 9-3 Florida win that game and leave some doubt in the minds of the CFP committee.

The Big Ten could see Ohio State beat Michigan this week and with the game in Columbus, nobody would be surprised.  Ohio State would be 11-1, but if Penn State takes care of Michigan State, the Nittany Lions would play for the Big Ten title against another two-loss team in Wisconsin or Nebraska.  For arguments sake, let’s say Penn State and Wisconsin square off with identical 10-2 records.  If Penn State wins, they would be 11-2 with a victory over 11-1 Ohio State.  Which team would go to the CFP; the team that won the conference championship; or the team with the better record?

As good as the CFP has been, this is its biggest problem.  College football remains a beauty contest, and as long as that’s the case the CFP will never achieve to its fullest potential.  In college basketball, if you win the conference tournament, you get the automatic bid.  You may not get the higher seed that the team you just beat does, but you get to go, no questions asked.  In college football, Colorado could win the Pac 12 title, but at 11-2, be left out of the CFP for the 11-1 Ohio State Buckeyes or even an 11-2 Michigan, which beat the Buffaloes in September.  Yes, college football is only 12 or 13 games and we all know that college football loves the controversy because it provides ammo for all the sports networks.  Why would they want to change that?  On the other side, does this way of thinking make any sense?

The conference championship game could also hurt Clemson should they lose to Virginia Tech or North Carolina and finish 11-2.  The ACC isn’t good enough to get a two-loss team into the CFP, plain and simple.

Then, there is the Big 12, which gets knocked for not having a conference championship game.  Love it or hate it, the Big 12 does offer a true round robin, where each team plays one another.  But, we saw when TCU and Baylor each went 8-1 and 11-1; both were left out of the CFP because Ohio State drubbed Wisconsin 59-0 in their conference title game.

The easiest remedy is to eliminate the conference title tilts and have each team play 12 games and using the beauty contest model, the CFP committee would select what they think are the four best teams.  That way, a 9-3 Florida could never beat a 12-0 Alabama, because there wouldn’t be an SEC Championship Game.

Another option would be to drop back to 11 regular season games, play conference championship games and expand the CFP to eight teams.  In this format, the winners of the conference title games would secure an automatic bid to the CFP.  Because an eight team playoff requires an extra round, you’d have to drop down to 11 so no team would play more than 15 total games.  In this scenario, the 9-3 Florida could beat the 12-0 Alabama, but because there would be three at-large berths available, both teams could get in.  Would schools want to give back the 12th game and lose revenue?  Probably not.

The FCS plays 11 regular season games and it’s possible for the FCS champion to play 16 games.  The FCS has a 24-team playoff, so if you don’t get the opening round bye, you’d have to win five games to be crowned the champion.  Most FCS champions play 15 games, the same amount that both Alabama and Clemson did last year.  No matter how you slice it, that’s a long season for a college football player who is also “trying” to be a student, too.

Is there a way to have 12 regular season games, conference championship games and an eight team CFP?  That’s probably what those who run college football would want, but they know that they’d be pressing their luck with those who think college athletics has jumped the shark and its attempt to sell us the student-athlete.

I would hate to see Ohio State get into the CFP at 11-1 without playing in their conference title game.  Are they a better team than 11-2 Wisconsin; probably, but there is something negative about “backing in” to the playoffs.  I would hate to see Colorado win the Pac 12 at 11-2 and get left out, because in any sport, if you win your league or division, you get rewarded with a trip to the playoffs.  In the old days, the 8-3 team could go 0-3 in nonconference games, 8-0 in conference and their reward was a trip to the Sugar, Rose, Orange or Cotton Bowl.  Now, that three-loss team is the villain if it plays in the conference title game because all they can really do is wreak havoc.  I guess in some ways that’s good, because chaos can be fun, but it is my hope that college football can get the right teams into its playoff whether that number is four, six, eight or ten.











Time for the American Athletic Conference to Rise Up

October 22, 2016

A call to BYU for a scheduling arrangement makes sense, too

by John Furgele (The Real 228, accept no substitutes)

The Big 12 got what it wanted and probably needed and that was attention.  You know the history.  In 2014, both Baylor and TCU were 11-1 and both were left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.  While many screamed that it was unfair, was it?  Most pundits said that had the Big 12 conducted a conference championship game like the SEC, Pac 12, ACC and Big Ten, the winner would have advanced.  But, often, truth is stranger than fiction.  That year, Oregon was 12-1, Ohio State was 12-1, Alabama was 12-1 and Florida State—the defending champion—was 13-0.  With a human committee in place, it came down to good old subjectivity and both Baylor and TCU were left on the outside.

The conference then decided to petition the NCAA so they could play a conference title game as a 10-member outfit, a wish that was granted.  Now, the league could decide to expand to 12, 14 or even 16 members, or they could stay at 10 and have a title game, something that the SWAC does with its 10 members at the FCS level.

The league decided that any publicity was better than none, so they invited prospective universities to apply for Big 12 membership, and as usual, all the shafted schools who wanted Power 5 association applied.   Cincinnati, Connecticut, BYU, Houston, Memphis, Central and South Florida all decided that preparing PowerPoints and interactive presentations were a must in the hopes of landing a Power 5 slot and the money that goes with it.  How could Cincinnati not be playing in a Power 5 conference when Kansas, Iowa State and even West Virginia were?

What was the result?  For all the attention they received, they received it for doing nothing.  The show lasted for what—17 months—and in the end, the conference decided to do nothing, so the Big 12 will remain like the Big Ten, poorly named with its 10 members.

The conference that felt the pressure was the fledging American Athletic Conference.  When the seven Catholic members left the old Big East for the new Big East, the AAC was formed.  In the league’s first year, their champion was allowed to play in a BCS bowl, in this case the Fiesta and in that game, Central Florida (with Blake Bortles at QB) throttled Baylor.  The next year, they lost that slot and their teams were scrambling, playing in games like the Poinsettia Bowl, Bahamas Bowl and Cure Bowl.

The American offered plenty to the Big 12.  The conference has schools in big cities like Houston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Tampa, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Annapolis/Baltimore/Washington, D.C and New Orleans.  Good-sized cities, cities that could help the Big 12 make some inroads in the eastern part of the United States. The American put on its best face and said that they have a great conference with great schools in great cities, but deep down they knew that they couldn’t hold back a Cincinnati or Houston should the Big 12 come calling.

In this way, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) reminded me of the Articles of Confederation, which was in essence, the United States Constitution before the Constitution.  The A of C served from 1781-1787 and was a loosely configured alignment of the United States.  It had some rules and regulations, but for the most part it allowed the states to do their own thing.  South Carolina could have slaves, but if France attacked it, the other 12 states would come to her defense.  The AAC was the same way.  It was an organization, sure, but when a third of the organization is looking to leave, how strong can it be?  If your girlfriend is still dating others on Fridays, how serious of a girlfriend is she?

As most fifth graders have learned, the Articles of Confederation failed.  The Founding Fathers knew that the “conference” of states had to be strengthened and the result was the creation of the U.S. Constitution, which despite some struggles along the way has lasted for 229 years, which all in all is a nice, little run.

Now, that the Big 12 expansion charade is over, it is time for the AAC to ditch the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution.  The conference has to believe it’s good and moreover, sell that it’s good to the rest of the college football world.  We know that Cincinnati, Houston and Connecticut were devastated that they didn’t secure Big 12 membership, but I hope that the first three phone calls—or in today’s world, text messages— AAC commissioner Mike Aresco received were from these three schools.  The message is simple:  “Let’s go forward and make the AAC the best it can be.  Let’s market our cities, our great universities, our great mix of urban, private and religious schools and present the AAC as a united and close-knit group.”  If the AAC can stay unified, they could negotiate a better TV deal and perhaps become what Aresco calls a Power 6 conference.

The Big 12 is really the Big 2; if Texas and Oklahoma ever explore moving, the Big 12 becomes a combination of the Mountain West and the American.  We know that can’t happen until 2024 or 2025 when the grant of rights runs out, but if you don’t think there will be another seismic shift in the college athletics landscape, you are only kidding yourself.

The AAC has to have everybody on the same page.  They can’t have Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston continue to flirt with other conferences and even though it looks like things are stable, they can’t get caught up in the nonsense.  They have to swallow their pride and make the AAC work, something that they can do.  They have 12 football members (Navy is football only), they play in good sized stadiums and they have the opportunity to beat Power 5 schools.  For schools like Cincinnati, they can now look a recruit in the eye and sell them on the AAC.  No longer do they have to say that the AAC is nice, but we expect to play in the Big 12 very soon.

With no expansion imminent, the AAC schools need to call the big boys and say, “let’s play.”  Why can’t Cincinnati play at Alabama and why can’t Alabama play at Cincinnati?  Memphis needs to look Tennessee in the eye and say, “look, you’re the big boy, we’ll play you three times, but one of those games is going to be at the Liberty Bowl.”  Connecticut should do the same with Notre Dame.  It makes sense for the Huskies to visit South Bend, but in return, the Irish have to come to East Hartford, not Yankee Stadium or Met Life Stadium in the Meadowlands.  The AAC is not the MAC, nor the Sun Belt, and they have to think and act like a big boy if they want to get treated as one.

In one scenario, the AAC would add BYU, Boise State, Colorado State and perhaps one more school to get to 16.  They could play eight conference games, have a conference championship game and send their champ to a major bowl game.  That scenario is unlikely for two reasons.  One, it makes the league too big geographically.  If we remember the WAC tried to make a go of it with 16 schools and it just didn’t work.  Two, it would move the AAC back to an Articles of Confederation feel, something that they need to get off of right now.  But, the AAC could do what the ACC did for Notre Dame and that is provide four to five games per year for BYU, which will continue to play as an independent.  If BYU could play four to five AAC schools per year, it would be a win-win for them and the AAC.  Conference schools like to play BYU early in the year, but when October and November get here, most schools want to play in their conference, not outside of it, leaving BYU with games against Wagner and Southern Utah instead of Temple and Houston.  The exception is the SEC, which likes to schedule an FCS or Sun Belt team the week before Thanksgiving as their “prep game” before playing their finale.

It is time for the AAC to rise up and be heard.  They are still intact and they have plenty to offer college football and college athletics.  This is not the time for Cincinnati, Connecticut and Houston to hang their head in shame; it is time for them to be the leaders of a “new” and re-energized conference.