Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Defense of Mangini (Well, Sort of)

Over in my old haunts, in Cleveland, things are as they should be: The Indians are 19 games back and playing out the string, and the Browns...well, the somehow the Browns, nearly a decade removed from their forced NFL hiatus, are worse than they've ever been. They have no quarterback, they have no real plan, and they have a coach whose ineptitude was defined by his insistence upon fining a player $1,701 for lifting a $3 bottle of hotel water.*

Given that, I realize am probably the only literate human in America who would dare say this right now, but I still believe Eric Mangini could be a successful NFL coach. Maybe not this year (O.K., definitely not this year), and maybe not in Cleveland. But Mangini is still only 38 years old. Here is what can be said about him: He is smart, and he is disciplined. The problem seems to be that he has no idea of the proper ways to channel this intelligence, and this discipline, and make it work for his players without seeming like a crank and a blowhard. He is a micromanager, and nobody anywhere has ever liked a micromanager, unless they are wildly successful, a la Bill Belichick. And Eric Mangini is not Bill Belichick. And this is precisely the problem.

A few weeks ago, my friend Seth Wickersham at ESPN the Magazine wrote an in-depth piece about the Belichick coaching tree, and about lack of success of his "saplings." It's an excellent story, worth reading in its entirety, but here was the key line, at least in regards to Mangini:

As head coaches, his protégés have all been accused of acting like him, as Belichick was accused of mimicking Bill Parcells. The Mangini former Pats colleagues now see with a whistle -- so serious he's Belichick to an extreme -- isn't the self-effacing guy they used to know.

I covered a few Jets practices, back during Mangini's rookie season, when he still had that air of genius surrounding him. It's true, that he said absolutely nothing interesting, and he seemingly forced his players (i.e. Chad Pennington) to do the same, but I always felt there was a human being in there, yearning to make its way out. Every so often, he'd make a joke, and a couple of the jokes were so surprising and subtle that it seemed to freeze the entire room. You don't move up that fast in the Belichick World Order without having something that endears you to the players. My guess is that somewhere along the way, Mangini figured the only way to make it work as NFL coach was to embrace the Belichick persona, and to attempt to intimidate the hell out of everyone. And in doing so, he's completely forgotten who he was.

It's not too late. Honesty works in Cleveland. If Mangini loosened up a little, if he owned up to mistakes, if he caved in on the aloofness thing here and there, he might earn enough slack to stick around while the Browns figure out a way to clean up this latest mess. But he needs to do it soon, because he should have realized from the start that the last thing Cleveland wants is another Bill Belichick.

*$1,701 is actually the cost of the same bottle of water if ordered from room service.

(Photo: Mark Duncan/AP)

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Chaos and College Football

I thought about many things as I watched my alma mater drown in a sea of its own ineptitude on national television Saturday night. But mostly, I was thinking about Slippery Rock. And you may already know where I'm going with this, but in case you don't: Every year, someone figures a way to concoct a victory chain, a series of results in a logical progression that somehow manages to prove some eighth-tier liberal arts school deserves the national championship over Florida. I grew up in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, and so that school was usually Slippery Rock, because who can help but root for a college that sounds like it could be the title of a They Might Be Giants album?

In fact, I figured someone would have put a web site together to calculate these possibilities, because this seems like one of the primary purposes for the invention of the Internet. Not surprisingly, I was right. Here is the victory chain from Slippery Rock to Oklahoma in 2008:

Slippery Rock beat
Kutztown who beat St Anselm who beat Merrimack who beat Stonehill who beat Wagner who beat Marist who beat Davidson who beat Jacksonville FL who beat San Diego who beat UC-Davis who beat Portland St who beat Eastern Washington who beat Weber St who beat Cal Poly SLO who beat San Diego St who beat UNLV who beat Wyoming who beat Tennessee who beat Vanderbilt who beat Mississippi who beat Florida

I was thinking about these victory chains not merely because Penn State lost, and not merely because Penn State seems likely to lose again and I was probably grasping for some measure of justification for what now seems like an inevitably disappointing season. I was thinking about victory chains because their fallacious logic justifies everything that is great and wonderful about college football, because it is a reminder that no sport* is more unpredictable, or more consistently harrowing, from week to week. College football is based in chaos**; there are so many variables, so many outliers, so many results that don't seem to compute. Think about it: The greatest play in the history of college football involved a dozen laterals and a trombone player. Top five teams are constantly losing, despite the pollsters' attempts to impose a structure and a social hierarchy on the season. California wins by three touchdowns, then loses by five touchdowns. USC survives on the road against a Top 10 team, then loses to the Detroit Lions of the Pac Ten. Miami's appears to have spearheaded a revival, and then embarrasses itself on the road. Nothing makes sense. Teams find their way, then lose their way, and find their way again, and by then it is often too late, because there is so little margin for error.

I know I slag on baseball far too often in this space. But I'm reading Joe Posnanski's The Machine, about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. I couldn't have cared less about that team, but the book is truly excellent, and I highly recommend it, and yet it also got me thinking about why I loved baseball so much as a kid and yet it seems anachronistic to me today. Maybe it's because baseball is such a careful and meticulous construction; the central tenet of the game is imposing order amid the routine of daily life (the early chapters of The Machine essentially center around the Reds' conservative manager, Sparky Anderson, attempting to carve out a winning lineup while confessing his problems to a Holiday Inn manager and refusing to allow his players to grow mustaches). Baseball was the metaphor for American life before the 1960's came along, with good reason, and it's history and heritage remains fascinating to me. But that world is long gone.

Football, for all its militaristic pretense, is essentially a desperate attempt to impose order amid the utter chaos of life. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and lately, given the diffusion of talent, given the pressure on athletes and the intensity of the home-field advantage, it has become more difficult than ever for any college football team to emerge unscathed. It may be that no one emerges in December without at least one loss. The tyranny of the victory chain is absolute. Chaos reigns. And maybe, if college sports can still be at all regarded as a formative experience for its participants as they prepare to enter the modern world, that's the way it should be.

*Possible exception: The NCAA basketball tournament. But even March Madness has become a much more predictable event in the era of RPI's and number-crunching.
**Or as my friend used to pronounce it when he was a kid, when he had only come across the word in books: CHOW-se. As in, "It's CHOW-se out there on the playground!"

Friday, September 25, 2009

On White Outs, Holsteins, and the Power of Marketing

I've never understood how marketing actually works, but I suppose that's exactly the point. I guess the best campaigns slink quietly into your consciousness, subtly altering behavior, effecting gradual change, until what once was seen in a certain way is supplanted by an entirely different viewpoint. I write about this a little bit in my new book; the way Nike revitalized its image behind Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan is truly remarkable (and probably speaks a great deal to Jordan's warped self-image). It works without anyone realizing it's working, and to be honest, it kind of freaks me out a little; I mean, I love Mad Men, but I think we can agree that Sterling Cooper's whole ethic is based in a skeezy kind of brainwashing. Anyway, I can think of no better literal example of a real-life marketing campaign shifting an entire culture than with Beaver Stadium, the home of Penn State football.

For decades, we knew the Beav as a 90,000-seat opera house. When we were young, we thought, Wouldn't it be great if all these people in this confined space actually joined together and made noise? I grew up in the timid confines of section WG, on the West side, far from the students' section; the loudest things would ever get was when people began mooing like Holsteins as they waded up the overcrowded ramps on the way to their seats. Beaver Stadium was dominated by the conservative voice of the majority, by people who were, frankly, like my parents, who generally disdained the notion of standing up during a football game unless it involved a watered-down Coca Cola and a trip to the men's room. Of course, now that I'm older, I understand where they're coming from; I don't particularly enjoy being surrounded by goofballs jeering in my ear, and I won't attend a concert unless I have a place to sit, preferably near the men's room. (In other words, my life in my thirties is essentially a Flomax commercial.)

But the problem at Beaver Stadium was that the stoicism of the old supressed the greatest advantage any college football team has--which is, of course, the inherent lunacy of the co-ed population. For years, all of us in the students' section preoccupied ourselves by hurling cups and marshmallows and passing mascots over our heads; we couldn't make enough noise to overcome the dour majority, so we didn't really bother. And there didn't seem to be any way to fix it.

In 1981, a young columnist for the Daily Collegian, name of Tom Verducci (I've heard the kid's done all right for himself), wrote a story about it. Headline: Blue-blood Fans Should Learn to See Red. "Penn State football fans are too quiet," Verducci wrote. He interviewed Penn State's longtime play-by-play man, Fran Fisher, who admitted that historically, Beaver Stadium had always been quiet, and no one knew why, and no one seemed to don the Penn State colors in the way Nebraska fans swarmed visiting opponents in an ocean of scarlet. One athletic department official blamed Eastern snobbery. Joe Paterno (wisely) refused to say anything provocative at all. One of the team's captains admitted it would be a lot cooler if fans brought the noise, but what could he do? That's just the way it was, and that was the way most of us presumed it would always be.

And then earlier this decade, Penn State hired a man named Guido D'Elia. Guido is a marketing consultant--a sort of Don Draper of the sporting world--and his contributions have been well-documented, but still, knowing what he started with, they cannot be overestimated. D'Elia began to make gradual, and then substantial, dents in the culture of stoicism at Penn State. Even now, I'm not really sure how he did it, but slowly, these things began to actually work.

The students stopped hurling objects at each other and actually began focusing their energy on the game itself. The remainder of the stadium, driven by the energy of the students, joined in. A silly riff called "Zombie Nation," played over the loudspeakers, has become an essential engine of noise. A group of students camps out in Paternoville each week for the privilege of occupying the front rows of the students' section. Guided by the subtleties of Guido's marketing campaign (Quoth Don Draper: "It's a carousel!"), they became the controlling influence, so that this weekend, when Iowa comes to town, the Hawkeyes will be greeted by a mob of undignified 18-to-22-year old lunatics, dressed up entirely in white and swaying like drunken sailors*. Kirk Herbstreit has declared that Beaver Stadium now has the best atmophere of any stadium the country, which, even a decade ago, would have been unthinkable. It impacts fans, it impacts players**, it impacts coaches, it impacts recruits; it has as much to do with the turnaround of the program as anything else in school history. Beaver Stadium is now one of the most difficult places to play in America, and I'm still not quite sure how it happened.

*Approximately 1 percent of these people actually will be drunken sailors.
**I am a believer in the rationality of sports, but I also believe that college sports are supremely impacted by by crowd noise and music and the din of environs; call me naive (guilty!), but I do think that it is possible for a group of 21-year-olds to will themselves to victory in certain cases, if the atmosphere is in their favor. And this is reason No. 328 why college football is better than pro football.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Things That Should Banned in September

1. Any substantial discussion of a college prospect's NFL draft position. In fact, I do believe that every year, on September 1, Mel Kiper and Todd McShay should be kidnapped, blindolded, and forced aboard an Oceanic Airways jet with a tuba and an unopened letter from a dead man in their hands. Those who obsess about the NFL draft in September--and I forgive the Kiper/McShay cabal, as well as assorted NFL player personnel directors, because it is an essential part of their job requirement, though this is one area of sports that seems to have become disproportionately important in the modern age--are either A.) Detroit Lions fans, or B.) People who enjoy fantasy football more than actual football.

(Also, on a similar note: If you put any critical thought into opening-weekend box office results, you do not actually like movies. In fact, you are the reason Beverly Hills Chihuahua exists. Congratulations. We will now return you to a very special episode of Two and a Half Men.)

2. Any hyperbolic assertion that, because of a single loss, a dynastic program/franchise has now reached an inextricable end. This seems to be the trend among hyperopinionated bloggers and mainstream sports columnists--by attempting to position themselves ahead of the curve, they have, in fact, brought the curve to them, so that the consenus now seems to be that both USC and the New England Patriots are on the verge of imploding into a pile of metrosexual body parts. When, in fact, USC does this every year, and somehow winds up back in the BCS picture by December--and could easily do so again. When, in fact, the Patriots have a single win, and a single loss, and could easily reel off eight victories in a row in midseason, all of which will have those same hyperopinionated bloggers scrambling to assure us that they saw this coming as soon as all those hyperbolic sports columnists proclaimed the dynasty dead.

This is the beauty of the Internet: Overreaction is now the expectation. To which I say, apropos of nothing: Socialism!

3. College football polls, of any kind. This week, Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer submitted an AP poll ballot based entirely on "results." This seems to have upset some people, including one commenter who called Lesmerises an "idiot," a "moron," and a word that urban dictionary defines as...well, something I wish I hadn't bothered to look up. Lesmerises has Alabama No. 1, and Miami No. 2, and Houston No. 3, and Cincinnati No. 4...he has Florida No. 5, and Michigan No. 10, and Penn State No. 15, which is probably right around where Penn State belongs, until they prove they can beat a school with a varsity football program. Lesmerises did what he had to do, though the ideal thing to do would be for every AP voter to submit a blank ballot until the first week of October, perhaps with a crude sketch of Tim Tebow on the cross or Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer in an octagon-shaped wrestling ring, and then pick it up from there. This would have two excellent effects: It would cause every college sports message board to implode in a fit of indignant rage and insults culled from urban dictionary; and it would remind the nation that polls themselves are an unnecessary exercise in objectivity that should have nothing to do with the actual game of football, and that there is no perfect or proper way for a poll to depict the entirety of the landscape--especially when nothing has really happened yet.

Now, if you feel the entire purpose of an early-season poll is to stimulate discussion, maybe it would be best if those AP voters chose to rank alphabetically for the first month. In which case, Lesmireses would still have Alabama at No. 1. Which proves what we already knew: That all sportswriters are actually geniuses.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Booker Moore and the JP's

Was there a better time period for crackerjack monikers than among college football running backs in the late 1970s and early 1980s? In the name of Curtis Dickey, I say: Nay. In 1980, I watched Nebraska I-Back Jarvis Redwine uncork a bouquet of sweet-smelling option-based beatdowns on Penn State. Jarvis Redwine, of course, had the dubious task of following the legend of I.M. Hipp--whose reign comprises the apex of Carter-era sporting nomenclature--all of which led me, at the age of eight, to presume that Nebraska was much cooler than lily-white central Pennsylvania, that in fact Nebraska was the funkiest state in the union, full of grinning overall-clad corn farmers wearing oversized hats and grooving out on their John Deeres to Parliament records.

But Penn State was not devoid of alliterative running backs in 1980, either.
For we had the one-man band known as Booker Moore, a tailback from Flint, Michigan, who, according to the Joe Paterno quote in the 1979 Penn State football media guide I hold in my hands*, "...only needs to learn how to use his speed more intelligently to become an outstanding back." Well, Booker must have learned something, because after rebounding from some early troubles at Penn State, he had a solid career; and then after failing to make an impression with the Buffalo Bills during a brief NFL career, he became a police officer. He died last Sunday, while watching football at home, at the age of 50. Rest in peace, Booker. Your name will not soon be forgotten. How could it be?

*That year, Penn State faced tailbacks named I.M. Hipp, Curtis Dickey (of Texas A&M), Billy Ray Vickers (N.C. State) and Rooster Jones (Pitt). In 2009, that is no doubt a murderers' row of
college town funk-rock bands.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On the Untold Beauty of the Mall

I love shopping malls.

Mine is a completely irrational passion, born of a childhood spent wandering the lone corridor of the Nittany Mall, in search of Orange Julii* and Gap jeans and Chess King sweaters and some material method of chasing away small-town tedium. That love of malls carried me through a dull post-college internship in Los Angeles (varied locations), and through five years in Akron, Ohio, (Summit Mall), and offset a year of supposed "serious study" in Boston (Prudential Center). There's something about a mall that crystallizes the ordinariness of modern American life: The free samples of bourbon chicken, the hirsute kiosk clerks hawking overpriced cell-phone plans with the passion of mob enforcers, the sports memorabilia mart with its overpriced jerseys and framed Willie Stargell pennants, the burbling of a half-dead fountain laden with corroded pennies, the scent of corn dogs and Sears outerwear--a mall is a uniform American experience, a confluence of the hideous (American Girl) and the breathtaking (Victoria's Secret, for the pubescent teenage male), of the decadent (Auntie Anne's Pretzel Bites) and weird (Spencer Gifts), of all the excess of our crumbling empire, of our endless yearning for that which we do not need.

And so I spent this weekend in Minneapolis, at the wedding of one of my closest friends, and I couldn't not visit to the Mall of America, the uber-mall, a mall so great that it actually became the central metaphor in one of the greatest pieces of sports journalism any human (in this case, Steve Rushin) has ever composed. I went to Mall of America expecting to be overwhelmed by the sights and scents of our national pastime. And in a way, I was not disappointed. I saw a teenaged mother screaming at the father of her child from outside the mens room as he attempted a diaper change with a high degree of difficulty; I passed at least six sports memorabilia stores, each of which had displayed dozens of iterations of Brett Favre gear; I ate lunch at a restaurant whose founders voluntary chose the vaguely sexual, mildly offensive name Tucci Bennuch (second choice: Fuhgeddaboudit), and I watched the roller coaster at the center of the mall rattle and roll and discharge the sorts of yellowish adults who would choose to ride a roller coaster at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon; I had, laid out before me, every chain store that has ever existed, row after row of American Apparels and Gaps and Banana Republics and Macy's and Frederick's of Hollywood (apparently, Wonder Woman outfits are the rage among trashy housewives this autumn), and somehow, despite all of this, I still felt inexplicably empty inside. It just didn't seem like enough.

But then, this is exactly what I anticipated feeling. And I suppose this is the reason why I love to visit the mall, and it is the reason why I am most happy when I leave without buying anything at all. Because if even the largest, most-hyped, most patriotic shopping structure in the world cannot satisfy me, perhaps it is a sign I don't really need much of anything at all.

*Is this the actual plural of "Julius"? Unknown. Perhaps, as with moose, the plural of "Julius" is "Julius," but I prefer to think of a "Julius" as synonymous with "Sarcophagus." Particularly the Pina Colada flavor.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

This Weekend's Picks

This is the first time I've done this. It may be the last. We'll see.--MW

Indecorum (-6.5) over Socialism

Celibacy (-11) over Vaingloriousness

Jaws (-4) over Jesus Complexes

Fab Four (-20) over 12th Men

Hijacking Enthusiasts (+7) over Hipsters

Buddy Ryan (-46) over Rex Ryan

Roadhouse (-19) over Every Other Movie Ever Made About Nightclub Bouncers With Philosophy Degrees from New York University

Puff the Magic Dragon (+6) over Dungeons and Dragons

Italians (-28) over Jews

Dorks (-3) over "Cats"

"F---ing That Chicken" (even) over Glenn Beck

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the Wisdom of Old Men

I have been to many press conferences in my life. To this day, I can honestly say I have never experienced anything quite like a Joe Paterno press conference. When he is at his best--as he was this week--Paterno is an alchemist, a wizard, a drill sergeant and a Borscht belt comedian. He can be sharp and self-deprecating one moment, defiant and hysterical the next. He can transition from a barely discernible and seemingly nonsensical tangent into Aristotelian philosophy into a Henny Youngman routine.

There are certain consistencies to a Tuesday afternoon Paterno press conference--he will no doubt refer to someone as a big strong kid (back in college we used to take bets, in fact, on how many times Paterno would use this phrase), he will identify the opponents' best players by their uniform numbers, he will mutter at least three completely unintelligible phrases in some kind of hybrid of Brooklynese and coachspeak, and he will bark, "I dunno," at a reporter whose question he finds unnecessary. He will also, if he is the right mood, go off on at least three irrelevant tangents. But then, it is in the tangents that Paterno shines.

For instance, this week, a reporter from the Collegian, the school newspaper, informed Paterno that Josh Hull has a mustache. Which wouldn't be such a big deal if Josh Hull were, say, a middle-aged electrician, or a private eye based in Hawaii, or a 24-year-old bass player for an alt-country band in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But Josh Hull is a linebacker. More important, Josh Hull is a linebacker at Penn State, a position that does not generally invoke hipster imagery. But recently, after watching tapes of an old football game, Josh Hull decided to pay tribute to the visages of the past; maybe he also caught one of those showings of Semi-Tough on cable. Anyway, this led Joe to confess that he had no idea about Josh Hull's mustache, and didn't really care:

"Geez, you guys must think I go around... it's like that old MASH guy, the guy that was a major in MASH, call him out and have him review (the company) every morning.... If he wants a mustache, that's okay."

Now, I had no idea Joe Paterno was the kind of guy who watched MASH. I had no idea he knew how to turn on his television. That's the beauty of a Paterno press conference--he never goes where you think he's going to go. Whenever you think he might condemn, he backs off. Whenever you think he might answer with a soft cliche, he digs in deep. When someone asked him about whether he might be OK with Penn State someday naming its field after him, he used it to philosphize about the afterlife:

"I don't know that much about what it is to be dead.
How much do you know what's going on after you're dead?"

Later, another reporter informed Paterno that his team was ranked fifth in the country, which then turned into a rant about newspaper headlines, about reading newspapers in the bathroom, and finally about the impending death of newspapers. I recommend you read it all (or better yet, listen to it), but here's a key passage:

"I'd love to read the sports page, but to be very frank with you, I don't because so much of it is you guys have to base on what you are getting in an e mail, what you're getting because I've talked to a couple of guys about it."

"You're influenced by, what people are after you to say something because you're competing. It's like I don't even turn on the television set anymore, because one television station is anti Obama. The other one you like to have somebody have an impartial view of some things because they studied it and they know about it. And they're not being influenced by the guy that owns the paper or the guy that owns the radio station, so it's a different world and it's not the kind of world that I'm comfortable with."

It's kind of a crude critique, and as always, there are clauses that seem actively obtuse, but once it is run through the Paterno translator, it's actually quite astute. In one paragraph, a man who does not know how to open an Internet browser encapsulated the dangers of our accelerated culture and the cacophony of modern media.

And that's not even the best part. The best part was when, in the midst of this epic tangent, Paterno said this: "What you are today isn't what you're going to be tomorrow, all right? What you're going to be tomorrow is what you make happen tomorrow."

I'll be honest: I have no idea if he made that up, or when he made that up, or even what it really means. But that's Joe Paterno. It's a Joe Paterno who may have faded from view in the past couple of years, when he was dealing with the pain of a bad hip, with the uncertainty of his own future, with a group of players who seemed to lack the self-discipline to stay out of trouble off the field. I would like to think that he knows he probably made some mistakes, that he lost his way, that the next couple of years are probably all he's got left. And he's going to give whatever he has, which is why, in sixty minutes, the man managed to throw it all out there, his theories on politics, football, television, facial hair, newspapers, and death.

After all, there aren't a lot of tomorrows left.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Death of Conservative Football

So there was this moment, a few years back, when some members of the Penn State coaching staff jetted down to Texas to check out the scheme that the Longhorns had devised for a quarterback named Vince Young. It was one of those things that seemed silly and desperate at the time, but it essentially turned the entire Penn State program around; that next season, in 2005, Michael Robinson essentially became Vince Young Lite, an elusive quarterback with a gift for making plays out in space, and Penn State became something completely different. It was, I would like to think, Joe Paterno's concession to evolution. Even if his sartorial choices remain stubborn and steadfast, his brain is more elastic than you might think.

I thought about that on Saturday night, as I watched Ohio State, ever cautious, fritter away a football game in the final minutes. I thought about that this afternoon, as I read the postmortems and the piled-on critiques of Tresselball, which more informed critics than me* are now condeming to obsolescence. The consensus seems to be that you can't play this way anymore, that it is impossible to button up your sweater vest to the neck and still win football games. And I tend to agree with this. And I tend to think that, for the most part, this is a good thing.

One of the things I love about football is that it is the sport whose evolution seems the most consistently visible; when you watch a game from 1982, it appears as if everything is happening in slow motion. Football is liberal, but the culture of football is also relentlessly conservative.** And that contrast is what makes the game so much greater than any other sport. And so as boring as it may be, there is something to be said for the basic tenets of Tresselball, for the notion that careful play and a lack of mistakes and ball control and simple execution can win football games over more talented teams. That, after all, is the game I grew up watching; that's the essence of the old Joe Paterno, the Paterno of a pre-Vince Young world. This is the Paterno who was not afraid to run the fullback dive into a cloud of dust on first down...and on second down...and occasionally on third down. This is the Paterno who threw downfield once each Olympiad, the Paterno whose teams won games they had no business winning simply by hitting hard and hoarding the ball and recruiting a great punter and relying on a quarterback who would have trouble these days starting for most Florida high-school teams. "We're never going to see that Woody Hayes-, Bo Schembechler- style of football again, that run-first mentality," wrote Bill Walsh several years ago, and while I know he is right, I kind of hope he's wrong. Because football is about contrast. Because it's about the endless conflict between conservatism and liberalism. Because when it's done well, there's still something beautiful about a cloud of dust.

*And I should say, I happen to find Smart Football an intriguing website, even if that dude once referred to a column of mine as "laughably abysmal." At least he found it funny, I guess.
**For more on this concept, I recommend you buy this book.

(Photo: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Friday, September 11, 2009

On This Date

I don't have a story to tell. I was living in Boston, jobless and confused. I heard it first on Howard Stern; until I logged on to my dial-up connection, I presumed it was tasteless schtick. A few hours later, I got through to a friend in New York. She was standing in the middle of a supermarket. The shelves were bare.

I listened, quite often, to this song, which came out before that day and yet manages to capture the mood of that era more accurately than anything else I've ever heard.

It's strange to think that there are second graders who weren't alive that day. It's stranger still to realize that something so massive could ever recede into the distance.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On These Interesting Times

Warning: What follows is disjointed, and has very little do with sports, although there is a Larry King reference.

I believe it was either Confucious or a well-paid fortune cookie writer who came up with the phrase "May you live in interesting times." Coming of age in America in the 1990's, I presumed this was an idiotic and outdated aphorism that would never actually apply to my life. It seemed we were doomed to an era of harmony and prosperity, our pastoral existence marred only by the presence of Candlebox and Newt Gingrich.

Well, things are different now. Our country is so discombobulated that people are actually turning blue! Also, otherwise sane and well-respected sports columnists are feeling the need to dispense lessons in sports history to hostages; a prominent lesbian has been chosen as a panelist on a wildly popular program that features goth homosexuals crooning at middle America; and, of course, southern Congressmen are quoting Reba McIntyre lyrics at the president of the United States. These would certainly seem like interesting times, largely because technology has advanced so fast that the truth itself has become a fluid proposition. Or at least, that's what I thought last night when I watched a congressman named Joe Wilson, unable to suppress his impulses, shout at the president during his address to Congress.

Now, I am not going to attempt to defend Joe Wilson. I think what he did was silly (not to mention factually dubious), and I think as punishment he should spend a week picking fruit on a Southern California farm populated by live tigers illegally imported from Asia. But here's the thing: That doesn't change the motivation behind Wilson's outburst. He truly believes that the president is lying, despite the fact that pretty much every non-partisan source says the president isn't lying. And Wilson believes the president is lying because that is the way modern culture works, because the truth is fluid, because anyone opposed to anything--even an absolute and concrete truth--can always cite a source that will prove their claims correct, therefore proving that the force they are crusading against is somehow disguising the real truth behind...well, behind the real truth. This is the danger of the Internet, and of the proliferation of unfiltered news; it is a great thing of war breaks out in Iran and information is sparse, but when information is plentiful, it renders facts entirely elastic. It gives people like Joe Wilson a reason not to trust anything anymore. It gives them a reason not to believe the truth.

That's kind of a simplification, I know. So let me also say this: I feel a certain sympathy toward Joe Wilson, even as I find the substance of his outburst utterly idiotic. Because the other problem this moment exposed is that while the news has become increasingly unfiltered, the men who make the news--and this applies to sports as well as politics--have become ever more filtered, hidden beneath layers of handlers and bloggers and Twitterers who shape the message behind a veneer of populism. Today, I hear everyone saying that we are not like Great Britain, where the prime minister regularly has to endure a series of questions from his Congress that make Joe Wilson seem like Larry King. And I'm thinking, as I've thought many times before, Why don't we do this? Shouldn't our president, of all people, be able to parry criticism and cite facts and construct arguments at the spur of the moment? Shouldn't our president have the continual ability to correct and belittle the fraudulent claims of his critics?* Shouldn't the process of governance be framed as a rational argument, with no B.S. allowed, with ideologues on both sides smacked down for their attempts to cloud the information that actually matters? Wouldn't government be a better, more rational entity if both sides were forced to actually defend their arguments directly against their critics?

That's the thing: This was why, for so many years, the media and its "filter" existed. But now, with the media fractured and splintered, the newsmakers have become the filters**. People like Joe Wilson, therefore, can believe what they want to believe, as they are convinced that Barack Obama and his handlers have carefully orchestrated his entire career, and he is therefore lying not only about his sincere offers of bipartisanship, but about his background as a Kenyan Hitler Youth. The real world has taken on the feel of a college sports message board: Rigidly ideological, only true believers permitted, facts subject to the fluidity of one's emotions. We live in such interesting times that no one seems to care who's lying to whom anymore. It's all about the shouting.

*I mean, come on: I would love to see Obama engage in an unfiltered argument over health-care policy with John Boehner.
**In sports, Bill Belichick has become such a strong filter that no one is able to effectively question him about anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On Football and Fixed Impressions

Until today, I had never heard of Tim Ruskell; then again, I suppose he could say he never heard of me, either. Here is who Tim Ruskell is not: The late moderator of Meet the Press, a voice-over actor on Prairie Home Companion, a country singer and/or the author of a Scandinavian detective novel. According to SI's prolific football writer, Peter King, Ruskell is the president of football operations for the Seattle Seahawks, and according to King, Tim Ruskell had some very nice things to say about a diminutive young receiver named Deon Butler, who played at Penn State and now may be playing himself into a prominent role with the Seahawks. All of that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, since I watched Deon Butler scamper about for four years while bigger and stronger defensive backs attempted to render him into a pancake.

However, Ruskell also said this: "He didn't have great stats in college because Penn State's obviously not a passing school."

Now, I've stated in the past that I refuse to serve as a knee-jerk defender of my alma mater's football program; I also think the notion of calling an offense the "Spread HD," as Penn State has done, sounds like something cooked up over riblets at a confab of Best Buy regional managers. However, this quote made me wonder, as I often do, about the vagaries of scouting and recruiting and drafting, and about how a reputation is often shaped, even in this modern age of quantification and statistical precision, by a single impression.

Ruskell's impression, obviously, is that Penn State is not a passing school. And there is historical merit in his statement, given that someone once made up golf balls with Joe Paterno's face on them and pronounced they were guaranteed to run up the middle three out of four times; given that, until Penn State won its first national championship, the most famous sequence in school history was marked by a refusal to pass on a four-and-out goal-line series against Alabama; given that for two years in the 00's, Penn State was quarterbacked by a tragic figure named Anthony Morelli, who seemed determined to restore the old ways by displaying the mobility of Y.A. Tittle. However, this is not really so true at all anymore: It wouldn't take much of an effort to note the recent trajectory of the Penn State offense, nor to realize that three players on the 2008 team--including Butler himself--finished their careers among the most prolific receivers in school history. Last year, Penn State's quarterback, Daryll Clark, threw 321 passes. This was tied for 66th in Division I-A, which may not seem like much, but it was more than Oklahoma State's Zak Robinson (314), and more than Tim Tebow (298). This year, it appears Clark will pass with reckless abandon; last week, he threw for more than 350 yards, and Penn State, easing its way into modernity, continued to defy its own history.

You would think a football operations guy should notice such things, that they should be more attuned to the subtleties of the college game--or at the very least, they should be impacted by Penn State's orchestrated marketing campaign, which seems to claim that their spread offense can be viewed more clearly on cable systems nationwide. But maybe--and I realize I'm kind of contradicting myself from day to day here--I'm overestimating the science involved. Maybe at some level, a football guy is so harried and so busy, his life such an endless cycle of bodies in uniform that he doesn't see anything more objectively than the rest of us. Maybe we're all slaves to our own fixed impressions, in which case LaGarrette Blount could probably rescue a roomful of nuns from a burning convent and he'd probably still drop to round five.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On the Return of Football

Let me just admit it: I watched an absurd amount of football on Saturday. I watched so much football that by the time that Washington-LSU game ended sometime on Sunday morning, by the time I completed a day-long Clockwork Orange cycle of violence and platitudes and blown coverages, I felt sufficiently brainwashed. As always, I now have baseless opinions about things I probably don't know at all.

But then, I think that's the beauty of football: Because it is the most intricate of the major sports (11 spare parts melding into one elegant Mousetrap), most of the opinions we have about the games we watch are based purely on guesswork and feel. It is the one sport where a coach can defend his decision by citing some complexity of the game that we couldn't possibly understand, and 99 percent of us have no choice but to at least allow that said coach, in defending the fact that his cornerbacks were repeatedly beaten because of the implementation of some new coverage scheme, could actually be telling the truth. It's college football, and we know weird things happen; teams win when they have no right to win, and teams lose for reasons entirely beyond our ken, and then look completely different a week later. For instance, I do believe that Kirk Ferentz, the head coach at Iowa, is a smart man who knows what he's doing; and the fact that his team nearly lost to Northern Iowa doesn't change my impression of him. It just proves that this game--which relies so heavily on order and discipline--is in fact guided just as often by randomness* as by any predictable structure.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that I'm really, really glad college football is back. It is the only sport--with the exception of the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament--where the games (especially in these first few weeks) feel like completely unforecastable events (See: Boise State over Oregon, Miami over Florida State, BYU over Oklahoma, Millersburg Teachers' College over Virginia, etc).

I fell into a brief discussion with a friend of mine last night, a Yankees fan who seemed especially pleased by the fact that this overpriced team he supported was finally playing up to the value of its payroll tax for the first time in a decade. He doesn't care much about football. I feel kind of bad for him. But I also know he grew up in New Jersey, where the state university's 150-year football rebuilding project stepped into a pair of cement shoes yesterday, in part of the country where college football essentially exists in a geographic void, propped up only by those of us who grew up in "the real America," those of us who recognize the beauty of a game that rarely ever conforms to our beliefs or expectations.**

And I will continue to believe that the rest of these people have no idea what they're missing.

*Not to mention the quality of one's recruiting base. But that's another story.
**This is why, while I admire Greg Schiano's efforts to make something out of nothing, Rutgers will never have a consistently successful football program: The culture won't support it. And this is why all those programs that have been down in recent years--Miami, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame--will find their way back to prominence: Because the culture does support it. (In Michigan's case, even on Sundays.)

(AP Photo: M. Spencer Green) (I have no idea what's happening in this photo. But I enjoy coming up with varied Paterno thought balloons to match his bewildered expression.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On JoePa and the Whale (Pants)

I was riding the subway this afternoon, and a remarkable thing happened: I saw a man wearing whale pants. That is to say, pants like these, embroidered with decorative designs of genial-looking whales spewing water out of their blowholes and into a languid khaki atmosphere. I'm not sure if I'd ever had a casual encounter with whale pants before. Until today, I presumed they'd long ago gone extinct.

Of course, this struck me because I have long had a special relationship with the use of giant cetaceans as sartorial emblems. As with so many of the seminally odd experiences of my childhood, this is due to Joe Paterno.

Here's the story: In 1982, Paterno wore a pair of whale pants during a football game, and thereby engendered an entire mythology in central Pennsylvania.* The story goes that Paterno bought the pants at the Jersey Shore, at one of those chintzy prepster beach shops where they sell things like...well, like pants with whales on them. His wife Sue dared him to buy them, thinking that he never would. But he did it. And one Saturday in the fall, when his regular khakis were in the wash, he donned the whale pants, left his house, walked twenty minutes across the campus to Beaver Stadium, and coached a football game while his players and eighty thousand spectators stifled their laughter. Soon, whale pants became an inside joke, shorthand for Paterno's obliviousness to the modern world. The whale pants represented an ethic, a morality, the complete lack of self-regard that enveloped Paterno at the height of his creative genius in the 1980's.

At the time, I didn't think much of it. I was ten years old. I myself wore polka-dot pajamas. I thought this was a typical thing; I thought that perhaps all football coaches possessed marine-themed sportswear. For that matter, I kind of presumed all football coaches were like Joe Paterno, that they were all quirky and unassuming and disinterested in the trappings of glamor. It took me years to realize that Paterno was, in fact, unlike anyone else who had come before him, or anyone since. It took me years to realize that by growing up in State College, Pennsylvania, I had come of age amid the gravity of a true American original, of a man whose very obliviousness to style in fact engendered its own style. "As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to wear a clown uniform, he'd be stylish," said the late GQ editor Art Cooper, a Penn State graduate. "With Bear Bryant, it was the hat. With Joe, it's the rolled up cuffs."

Of course, just as Paterno wore the whale pants because they were the only clean pair he could find, he rolled up his cuffs for the sake of utility. He did it--he does it--to keep them clean. Why else would he do it?

I understand that the whole notion of purity in athletics feels like a hollow concept these days. We all know, even if we're not willing to admit it, that college sports have become a corporate enterprise, they they are too often an unruly example of unfettered capitalism at work. If there's anything the Rick Pitino saga has taught us, it's that modern coaching is an exercise in ego and self-aggrandizement. And I should say that I've had my issues with Paterno's policies over the years. I think he can be condescending to the media and overly controlling of his program. I think at times, he's been slow to adapt to the changes in youth culture. I think he should have named his successor several years ago and the fact that he hasn't is unfair to the long-time assistants who have served him for decades. I am skeptical about certain things, but even now, even as he steams toward his mid-eighties, even as he becomes fodder for doddering octogenarian jokes, there is something about Paterno that even his detractors would admit remains inexplicably pure. Here is a man who lives by his own rules, who generally believes in the same principles he did back in 1955. Here is a man who has created his own style--who has thrived through five decades of American life--simply by refusing to grasp at trends.

It's football season again, and I'm not sure how many more of these Paterno has left in him. All I know is that it's going to feel very strange to turn on my television one Saturday in September and not see him anymore, dressed like a man anticipating flood waters. "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation," wrote Herman Melville, a man who knew a few things about whales, and those pants, while they may have failed in their execution, will always remain in my mind as an emblem of the singularity of one Joseph Vincent Paterno.

*For a time, a friend of mine envisioned starting a publishing company called Whale Pants Press. If nothing else, it would have been an outstanding logo for a book spine.