Archive for February, 2007

As we head into the weekend, here is a mix of random news and sports links:

(1) PTAs Go Way Beyond Cookies (New York Times) – It was only a matter of time before Gordon Gecko started taking over PTA meetings.

(2) But Do They Cover This in Those Big Green Books? (Wall Street Journal Law Blog) – We crazy lawyers have outdone ourselves this time.  It’s not unusual to see a class action lawsuit filed.  However, it’s very unusual to see a class action lawsuit filed on behalf a group of… lawyers.  For what it’s worth, I’ll gladly take a $125 settlement from Bar/Bri (a monopolistic racket that puts Microsoft and Major League Baseball to shame), so the lead plaintiffs here need to simmer down.

(3) It Really is Time We Had a Trade or Two (True Hoop) – I think we’ve gotten to the point where the NBA trade deadline might very well be the most anti-climactic day in sports.  Every year, hoops fans banter on for months about viable swaps involving superstars yet no one ever pulls the trigger.  This season saw Jason Kidd and Pau Gasol added on to the rumor mill with perennial trade bait Kevin Garnett, which all ended up being a ton of hot air.  I mean, Isiah Thomas didn’t even get to give away another draft pick this year.

Note to Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale: for the love of God, trade KG to the Bulls already.  You’re on the outside looking in for the Western playoff race once again with the same old lineup.  You could’ve nabbed two of the Bulls’ top three players – Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and/or Ben Gordon – plus a potential boon of a draft pick this summer in a trade that would’ve aided both teams by giving the T-Wolves a strong base of young players that are already playoff-tested and putting the Bulls in position to fully take advantage of what will surely turn out to be the last couple of productive seasons for Ben Wallace immediately, yet you continue to be maddeningly stubborn.  This is another missed opportunity for everyone involved.

(4) Smith on Bench a Bad Idea (Mark Tupper Weblog) – For all of the national attention on the last dance for Chief Illiniwek on Wednesday (which I didn’t get to see live since I’m not one of the five people in the country that gets ESPNU), the larger concurrent issue for the Illinois basketball program is the awful cloud surrounding Jamar Smith’s criminal charges and the appearance of him being more worried about saving his own hide as opposed to Brian Carlwell’s life.  As much as I loved Jamar’s shooting touch, there’s no place in the Illini program for someone that completely disregarded his moral responsibilities to his teammate, much less the legal aspect of it all.  I’m sure that Bruce Weber and Ron Guenther will eventually make the right call here.

And finally…

(5) Foxy Brown Arrested in South Florida Over Hair Glue, Spitting Incident (AllHipHop.com) – I’m sure that everyone has gone ballistic in a beauty shop at one time.  But twice???

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After two decades of debates and protests, the Chief Illiniwek issue was finally laid to rest by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees by announcing that the mascot/symbol will appear for the last time on Wednesday.  The Chief debate has always brought up a lot of mixed emotions for me.  As an Illinois student, I was a pretty strong Chief proponent that believed that it was as unique and special as any tradition in all of college sports.  Indeed, to this day, there are few moments that move me more than when the Chief raises his arms in the middle of the “Three-in-One” and the entire stadium sings “Hail to the Orange” in unison.  At the same time, I thought a number of special interest groups and politicians (Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones in particular) outside of the University of Illinois community used the Chief as a hot-button issue to propel themselves into the spotlight when it really had nothing to do with them.

However, in the wake of being removed from college for a few years, the Chief issue simply wore me down to where it just didn’t matter to me anymore.  All I wanted was for the story to go away so that it wouldn’t be rekindled every single fall when students came back to campus.  I also couldn’t stand the small yet extremely vocal group of Illinois alums that threatened at every turn to stop supporting the university both financially and emotionally if the Chief were to ever be removed.  There’s a whole lot more to being an Illini than the existence of the Chief, so I found these threats to be a sad indicator of the shallowness of a number of fellow alums.

When the NCAA announced last year that it would bar Illinois from hosting any national tournaments on campus as long as it allowed Chief Illiniwek to dance at halftime, it was only a matter of time before the announcement to end the tradition would come.  While a number of Illini fans argued that the Chief could be kept since the NCAA ban wouldn’t affect the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, the athletic department as a whole in its good conscience couldn’t effectively put an albatross on all of its other sports for the sake of a mascot/symbol.  The ability to remove the NCAA ban was reason enough alone for the U of I Board of Trustees to get rid of the Chief.

Regardless of whether the impetus for ultimate decision to remove the Chief was to bow to politically correct interest groups or a self-interested action to be in alignment with NCAA policy, the timing was right.  There will certainly be a lot of heavy hearts in the Assembly Hall in Champaign on Wednesday evening when the Chief appears for the final time.  In the end, however, the fight to keep Chief Illiniwek simply wasn’t worth the cost to the rest of the University of Illinois.

(Image from Washington Post)

As I sit here sulking over not winning my Grammy moment with Justin Timberlake last night, here are some links:

(1) Close Call Would Have Helped on Selection Sunday (Mark Tupper Weblog) - Putting aside my disdain for Satan’s Spawn, Illinois missed a golden opportunity to virtually lock up an NCAA Tournament bid by faltering in the final minute on the road against Indiana on Saturday. As Mark Tupper alludes to in the link, Illini fans are now going to be extremely nervous heading into Selection Sunday. I still believe that a 9-7 record in the Big Ten ought to be enough for a bid (which would require us to win 3 out of the last 4, but we’d better also win at least 1 game in the Big Ten Tournament on top of that to be sure.

(2) Bubble Watch (ESPN.com) - Speaking of the NCAA Tournament and Selection Sunday, ESPN is back with its overview of the bubble teams. What’s amazing is that UConn and LSU, who were simply dominant last year, are almost certainly not going to be invited to the dance unless they win their conference tournaments while Michigan State is pretty close to being in the same position.

(3) A New Chandler in Chicago (Zoner Sports) – In one more note on college basketball before getting onto other subjects, it should be reiterated that Wilson Chandler of DePaul simply rules. That being said, DePaul has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. With victories against Kansas, UConn, and, most recently, Notre Dame, the Blue Demons should have been a lock for the NCAA Tournament along with being at least a middle seed in the Big East Tournament. However, with 3 horrible losses to sub-100 teams in the RPI (including a dreary 49-39 early season loss to Northwestern that had George Mikan rolling in his grave), DePaul isn’t even considered to be a bubble team anymore and still could miss the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden for the second time in as many seasons as a Big East member. The remaining regular season schedule ought to play in DePaul’s favor (besides a home game versus Marquette and a return road game at Notre Dame, the Demons have 2 games against bottom-feeder USF plus a putrid Cincinnati team at home), but their game-to-game inconsistencies have made the Illini look stable in comparison.

(4) Obama Questions Rivals on Iraq (Washington Post) - The most prominent political story in Chicago and the nation from this past weekend was the inevitable announcement by Senator Barack Obama that he will be running for President. As I’ve said before, I never thought that his relative lack of experience in the Senate would matter much on the campaign trail (otherwise, the history books would be peppered with stories about Presidents Dole and Kerry).

However, the main disadavantage that Obama has against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and, if he survives that, Rudy Giuliani or John McCain in the general election, is that the Presidential campaign will be the first time that the Senator from Illinois will ever experience the invasive and daily media scrutiny that comes with being on the national stage. While Obama has received almost universal fawning from the national media since his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the negative press is going to eventually come and we have no idea how he’s going to react to it. As John Kass pointed out in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, the national and international media has been ignorant with regard to (or at least ignoring) the Tony Rezko scandal so far – I’d be willing to bet on a lot more damaging stories surfacing as we go along. (I’m not saying Obama is by any means a nefarious person, but bad stories are simply going to come up no matter what.)

Meanwhile, is there anything that can be thrown at Hillary that could be any worse than the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals while her husband was in the White House? By the same token, what hasn’t Rudy Giuliani heard while having to deal with the rabid New York press on a daily basis for 8 years? If Barack Obama is going to win the Presidency, the key for him will be how he deals with his lack of experience of dealing with the negative, if not personally invasive, media stories that will eventually come to fruition as opposed to only having two years on the national stage in the Senate.

(5) Las Vegas Has Got the Game, but It Wants a Team (New York Times) - If you thought a Super Bowl in Miami was insane, just watch out when the highest-paid athletes in all of sports all get together this weekend in Las Vegas for the NBA All-Star Game. It takes a town with 124,000 hotel rooms to be able to hold that many entourages and posses. Honestly, I’d skip the game just to watch Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley take on the house in blackjack.

On another note, it’s simply criminal that none of the professional sports leagues have set up shop in Las Vegas yet. I can understand the NFL’s reservations since pro football is by far the most wagered on sport (followed by college football and a smattering of college basketball games), but the amount of dollars placed on Major League Baseball,NBA, and NHL games are minimal. As alluded to in the linked article, the best compromise would be for the casinos to take any games played by the Las Vegas franchises off of the board, which would eliminate the largest preceived (if not misguided) fear of illicit activity by the mere presence of teams in the city. With a town that is at the center of one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, a magnet for tourists from across the world, and more than flush with potential customers with a ton of cash, it’s only a matter of time before one of the leagues makes the plunge.

And finally…

(6) Bow Wow Launches New Label, Crew (AllHipHop.com) - Anyone can launch a new record label. Launching a new crew, on the other hand…

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Ron Zook has done it again and then some. After scoring a solid recruiting class for Illinois football last year, the coach with the guns that can’t be carried across state lines has made national headlines (from ESPN to the New York Times) by securing a legitimately stellar group on National Signing Day yesterday. Rivals.com has ranked the 2007 Illini recruiting class #18 in the nation, Scout.com has us at #22, and ESPN.com put us as high as #12. This has occurred despite the program’s pitiful 2-30 record in Big Ten games over the past four seasons. While the ability for top players to start right away in the Big Ten as freshmen is certainly an enticing carrot that Zook can dangle that many of the traditional powers can’t provide, this alone isn’t a sufficient explanation since there are plenty of other BCS schools with poor records that could provide those same opportunities yet they haven’t had the same recruiting success.

So, there’s been grumbling in the college football world about whether Zook is running a clean program, including a questionable remark from former Michigan State head coach John L. Smith in the above-linked New York Times article (please note that Illinois’ lone Big Ten victory last season came against Smith’s Spartans in East Lansing, which pretty much sealed his demise) and a Chicago Tribune article from today intimating that Notre Dame is behind the negative press as a result of losing a number of head-to-head battles for recruits with the Illini this year. While Zook himself has stated that he’s taken advantage of the lack of NCAA limits on text messaging recruits, there have never been any type of sanctions against him in the past (as opposed to, say, Satan’s Spawn).

What’s fascinating, if not frustrating, as an Illini fan at this point is that we now have a football program that has been a bottom-feeder for several years and a coach who doesn’t have a great reputation for play calling yet is able to attract top recruiting classes and a basketball program that was a Luther Head three-pointer away from a national championship two years ago with a coach that’s considered to be one of the top minds in the game but is losing top in-state recruits left and right. Ron Zook seems to be a case-study in the power of personality judging by his recruits continually stating that they chose Illinois because he’s a great guy with a young man’s intensity and could see him being a friend for life. Meanwhile, Bruce Weber appears to be stuck in a recruiting rut. The Eric Gordon situation was particularly painful, but that was an issue where the player’s lifelong “dream school” close to home ended up getting a new coach just prior to the end of the recruiting process. More disturbing to me is how the Illini have lost every single recruiting battle for the top players out of the Chicago-area since Weber became coach, particularly to former Illinois and current Kansas coach Bill Self. If we can’t protect our home state the way Self, Lon Kruger, and Lou Henson had done in the past, Illinois is going to lose all of the momentum that it has built over the past decade in basketball if it hasn’t already.

It could very well be argued that Ron Zook is the Bill Self of college football: an intense personality that is able relate to young players so exceedingly well that he essentially becomes a pied piper for the program, yet the jury is still out as to how he can translate that talent into success on the field. Of course, while recruits only matter if they’re able to produce results, I also believe that any coach would tell you that great players contribute a whole lot more in winning games than coaching strategy. It’s the ultimate paradox that the stronger Illinois basketball program has been struggling with attracting top talent while the weaker Illinois football program is nabbing national attention for its recruiting success. I’d love to see Illinois get to the point where it’s consistently a national power in both sports on par with Florida, Texas, and Ohio State (and I honestly don’t think that’s an exceedingly crazy notion), but the two Illini programs still have a lot of work to do in totally different areas.

(Image from Deadspin)

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As I thaw off here in Chicago, here are some links:

(1) Where Does Disaster XLI Rank? (Chicago Tribune) - Steve Rosenbloom’s ranking of Chicago’s worst sports disasters. As I noted in the aftermath of this year’s Super Bowl, the only time that I ever felt worse after a sports event than the Bears’ performance on Sunday was the Illini basketball teams’ loss in the 2005 National Championship Game. I can understand Rosenbloom’s ranking of the 2003 NLCS above Super Bowl XLI from a broader Chicago sports fan perspective (even though I personally didn’t feel much distraught from that event as a diehard White Sox fan), but I’m not sure how anything could have been more disasterous than the Black Sox scandal during the 1919 World Series.

(2) Bears Offseason Preview I: The Quarterback (Da’ Bears Blog) - Believe me, I have a love-hate relationship with Rex Grossman as much as anyone. However, are we really at the point where David Carr is the answer? Yikes!

(3) Illinois Has Rivals Fuming About Its Recruiting Coup (New York Times) - Ron Zook is drawing attention across the nation with a top flight recruiting class coming to Champaign next season. Of course, a lot of it stems from what he could possibly be promising such highly-rated recruits. I’ll have many more thoughts on the Illini recruiting situations for football and basketball very soon.

(4) Tempo-Free Aerial: Point Per Possession vs. Opponent PPP (Big Ten Wonk) - A quick chart showing the relative strengths of Big Ten basketball teams during conference play so far.

(5) We Hear That’s Why MJ Did It, Too (Chicagoist) - John Paxson put down a David Stern-esque hammer on Tyrus Thomas for the rookie’s comments on only particpating in the Slam Dunk Contest for the money.

(6) Mars Scraps Snickers Ad After Complaints (Washington Post) - I like to fancy my site as an equal opportunity blog. That being said, am I supposed to feel bad that I thought that this ad was actually one of the few entertaining spots from Sunday?

(7) Sweet Home Sports – A new Chicago sports blog that features the talented authors of the Chi-Sox Blog and Fleece the Pig, Flog the Pony.

And finally…

(8) In the Eye of the Beholder (Wall Street Journal) – What happens when a survey of the American public reveals that the Bellagio is one of the top 25 favorite buildings and structures in the country? Architects go apeshit, of course.

(UPDATE: I couldn’t leave this article from the Chicago Sun-Times on the University of Illinois “Girls of Engineering” calendar off of the links today. Since I was a business major – meaning that I was able to partake in binge drinking with little consequence at Illinois while still under the guise of a “practical” academic program – I’ll just let my readers that attended or are attending the College of Engineering comment on this.)

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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When Devin Hester ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown to put the Bears up only seconds into the game, I thought this was going to turn into one of the best nights in Chicago sports history.  Instead, I should have remembered the fate of Ohio State only a few weeks ago when Ted Ginn Jr. did the same for the Buckeyes and his team subsequently got trounced by the Florida Gators.  The fact that the Bears were only down by 5 points to Colts in the 4th quarter was a false hope – Chicago was soundly beaten after the 1st quarter on all fronts with the exception of special teams by Indianapolis.  There’s also nothing quite like watching my Illini brother Kelvin Hayden run back an awful Rex Grossman interception to effectively put the game away.

To me, the story of this game was 3rd down.  With the Bears so frightened of a big play from Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne, our defense failed to stop to torrent of Peyton Manning’s underneath passes to convert 3rd-and-long situations a ridiculous number of times.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, we couldn’t convert a 3rd down into a 1st down against the worst run defense in the NFL.  I believed in my heart of hearts that the Bears were going to win the Super Bowl, not just because I’m a lifelong Bears nut, but that they were the better and more balanced team.  However, the credit goes to the Indianapolis Colts since they overcame some lapses in the opening moments to completely dominate the game on both sides of the ball the rest of the way.

This is only the second time in my life where one of my teams made the championship game or series and failed to go all the way (the other time being the 2005 NCAA Basketball Championship with Illinois, which was even more of a personal buzzkill than last night if that could have been possible).  I guess you can say that I’ve been relatively lucky during my just short of three decades on this Earth having been a witness to the ’85 Bears, Michael Jordan’s heroics during the Bulls dynasty, and the foul mouth of Ozzie Guillen with the ’05 White Sox.  Still, it’s going to take quite awhile to get over the Bears not bringing home this year’s Lombardi Trophy that I truly believed was theirs for the taking.

(Image from Chicago Tribune

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Is there anyone outside of the Windy City that believes in the Chicago Bears? While the fact that the Colts are heavy favorites in Super Bowl XLI is at least based on some logic as opposed to the avalanche of ridiculously premature and misguided praise for the New Orleans Saints a couple of weeks ago, the way that the Bears haven’t attracted any non-partisan believers anywhere is nauseating (as in people that actually believe the Bears are going to win as opposed to those that might be cheering for the Bears as part of the anti-Peyton Manning crowd). I know that the Bears aren’t exactly a perfect or dominating team, but they are playing arguably the worst Colts team of the past 5 years that has equally glaring or worse flaws. Let’s tackle the misconceptions that have become the “conventional wisdom” this week:

(1) “The NFC sucks. No one from that conference can beat the AFC champ.” – There’s no doubt that the NFC has been a whole lot worse than the AFC for the better part of the last decade. This past year, however, should have provided empirical evidence that knocking the quality of play of a conference or a league (which I have admittedly done numerous times) is extremely short-sighted when it comes to championship matchups. Otherwise, we’d be seeing UConn Final Four T-shirts, Dallas Mavericks NBA Champs banners, and Detroit Tigers World Series rings. In the end, it’s the individual matchups between the particular teams that matter and I believe that the Bears match up with the Colts extremely well. This leads to the second flawed piece of conventional wisdom…

(2) “Peyton Manning and his giant cranium are going to take Rex Grossman to school.” – The quarterback comparison was going to be inevitable with Manning being the most high-profile player in the NFL and Grossman having had to go through weekly psychoanalysis sessions on Chicago talk radio over the last 3 months.

Here’s the thing that people seem to forget: Peyton Manning won’t be facing Sexy Rexy head-to-head. Instead, Peyton will be taking on a top tier Bears defense that shut down the most prolific offense in football this year in the NFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Rex will be leading the Bears offense against one of the worst run defenses in football and, better yet, practices every week against a superior defense that runs essentially the same coverages and schemes as the Colts. The general misguided perception right now is that the Colts’ defense has turned it around in the postseason, but the only real great game that unit put together was against the Chiefs in the wild card round. After that, the 6-point hold against the Ravens was really a function of how awful Baltimore’s offense was while Tom Brady and the Patriots were able to tear the Colts up before Peyton Manning saved that game for them.

The whole seemingly basic point is that the matchups are between the teams’ offensive units and defensive units as opposed to the media preferred storyline of the differences between the quarterbacks. For what it’s worth, if people keep bringing up Rex Grossman’s 0.0 QB rating against the Packers, they also ought to note that he’s got a higher QB rating in the playoffs than Manning (75.4 for Rexy to 66.8 for the Giant Head). Regardless, as the old adage goes, offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. I can’t help you if you actually believe that the Colts have a better defense than the Bears. As for the final item to discuss…

(3) “The Colts have been on the national stage for years and finally got past the Patriots, so they know how to deal with pressure better than the Bears.” – A couple of points here. First, if anything, the Colts are much more susceptible to a letdown by beating their long-time rival in an emotional game in order to get to the Super Bowl. Minneapolis Red Sox has pointed out that this didn’t affect the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series after their comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, but the emotional carryover/letdown effect is a much more prominent factor in football than baseball. I have the impression that the Colts are very happy to just be participating in the Super Bowl by finally beating the Patriots and figure that Dennis Green can just “crown their ass”, while this year’s Bears are sick of the dual tracks of hearing how they’re such big underdogs to Peyton and the continuous infatuation the City of Chicago has with the ’85 Bears team.

Second, only teams in three other cities can possibly understand the constant pressure of playing in the Chicago media market: New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. I was watching an ESPN report yesterday where the reporters were commenting how well Rex Grossman was handling all of the “tough” media questions about his skills this week. Uh, does anyone realize how much this guy has been put through the ringer in a massive media market with competing sports radio stations and newspapers that have a 24-hour-a-day focus on the Bears during the NFL season? Believe me, the pressure and spotlight this week in Miami are nothing compared to the 4-month in-your-face grind of being the starting quarterback in Chicago. I’m expecting Rex to come out a lot more relaxed and prepared than the national press is predicting at this point.

With all of that, here’s my prediction for Super Bowl XLI:

Bears 46, Colts 10.

OK, seriously:

Bears 35, Colts 24. Even this score would shock everyone but me. That’s alright, though. Super Bears Super Bowl!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)