Tuesday, October 5, 2010

By Bob Markus

Having just watched two disgraceful performances by my two favorite professional football teams, I'm ready to declare what I've felt all along: the college game is better. The players may not be as good or as well coached. They're certainly less experienced. Perhaps their game is less nuanced, less full-bodied. But, like a nouveau beaujolais compared to a mature cabernet, it is by far more sprightly. It is, I suppose, a matter of taste and while my palate tends to favor a big red wine, in football give me the saucier version.

Never has there been a better example of the divide between the two games than on the week-end just concluded with the New England Patriots 41-14 whomping of the Miami Dolphins. Saturday was a football fan's delight. I saw my first college football game 63 years ago (Notre Dame 26, Northwestern 19) and I've seen hundreds more since, most of them from a press box as a sports writer for The Chicago Tribune. I've seen some of the most storied games in college football history, from Texas' 15-14 national championship clinching victory over Arkansas in 1969 to Nebraska's 35-31 thriller over Oklahoma in 1971 to Miami's 26-25 win at Florida State in 1987 when Bobby Bowden went for two in the closing seconds and didn't make it.

Since retiring 14 years ago, almost all of my football viewing has been on television. It's not as rich an experience as being there. There's nothing like the feeling on a college campus on a football Saturday. But TV does give you the chance to watch many games on the same day. It's the rare game, especially a game featuring one of the elite teams, that you can't find somewhere on the television spectrum.

A baseball team owner once told me he loved the game because "there's an orgasm in every ball game." What he meant, he explained, was that in even the most one-sided game there comes a moment when one pitch, one swing of the bat, can turn the tide of the ball game. If the same is true of college football, then Saturday ws multiorgasmic. There were more choices for the football connoisseur than you'll find on the menu of your favorite Italian restaurant.

For my antipasto I chose Northwestern vs. Minnesota, a game won by the Wildcats, 29-28, on a last minute field goal by a kicker whose earlier missed extra point had been the reason his team was two points behind (the missed kick had forced Northwestern to try a two-point conversion after its next touchdown). For the second course I passed on Michigan State-Wisconsin, a battle of ranked unbeatens and chose to look in on Michigan at Indiana, mainly to watch Wolverine wunderkind Denard Robinson. The Michigan sophomore delivered a masterpiece, scoring on a 72-yard run the first time he carried the ball, and carrying the Wolverines on his back in the final minute on a 73-yard drive that ended with his 4-yard run for the game-winning touchdown. Somewhere in the post game wrapup I discovered that Tennessee had a 14-10 lead at LSU with a second left to play. I hastily scanned my TV listings and switched to that game just in time to see new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley angrily throw what appeared to be a radio handset to the ground and stalk off the field. That's when I found out that Tennessee actually had stopped LSU's last second try, but was penalized for having 13 men on the field. Since a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, LSU was awarded a play after time had expired. This time the Tigers had hammered it home and, since there were now about 10,013 men--and some women-- on the field, didn't try, or need, the extra point.

After a brief timeout to recharge my taste buds, I ordered dessert. I could have chosen the No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 7 Florida concoction, which came highly recommended, but chose to go with the high-calorie special, Stanford at Oregon. Good choice. After falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter, Oregon stormed back for a 52-31 victory, which not only was highly entertaining, but ultimately pushed the Ducks into the No. 3 spot in both national polls. Those who opted for the Alabama-Florida game were disappointed by a Florida team that collapsed like a soggy souffle. Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in the course of the evening I saw Washington beat Southern Cal 32-31 on a game-ending field goal? What a football Saturday it was !

Now it was the NFL's turn to strut its stuff. It's not that I don't like pro football. I've seen my share of big NFL games, but few of them have been truly exciting. In fact, the most famous game I covered, the Franco Harris "immaculate reception" game, was downright boring until the final two minutes. I covered 10 Super Bowls and only one of them was truly entertaining. I'll admit that in the last few years the Super bowl has produced some thrillers, the lone exception in the last five games being the Bears' humdrum loss to the Indianapolis Colts when the highlight for us Bear fans was the opening kickoff.

I didn't watch any of Sunday afternoon's NFL games, chosing to take my wife to a movie and maintain family tranquility rather than watch the Donovan McNab-Michael Vick showdown. Another good choice. From what I read in Monday's paper the movie (Jack Goes Boating) was better than any of the games and, as a reward for being a good boy, I got to watch the Bears-Giants game Sunday night (with an hour's break for "Dexter" in the first half.) It might have been the dullest football game in history and Bears' quarterback Jay Cutler probably is lucky that his ninth sack in the first half resulted in a concussion that, hopefuly, left him unable to remember the dirty details.

Then, last night brought the Patriots' romp over the Dolphins in which the Miami special teams unit gave away three touchdowns, a performance so awful that a local writer described it as "The Triple Crown of Terrible." I fell asleep in the second quarter of this one and woke up just as Brandon Tate was returning the second half kickoff for a New England touchdown. I soon went back to sleep and so did the Dolphins.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

By Bob Markus

Every so often, like maybe once a century or two, there occurs something so delicious, so right, that even a confirmed atheist might have to admit "maybe there is a God." This kind of near-epiphany happened for me a few weeks ago when I saw Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl blubbering like a baby on national TV. Perhaps Pearl was crying over the $1,500,00 that Tennessee is going to deduct from his paychecks over the next five years. Or was it just a reaction to his being exposed as a liar and a hypocrite? Pearl has admitted to lying and deliberately misleading the NCAA in its investigation of alleged violations in his basketball program.

This is the same Bruce Pearl who, two decades ago, sent a memo to the NCAA accusing Illinois basketball coaches of several violations in the recruitment of Chicago high school phenom Deon Thomas. Chief among the allegations was the charge that Jimmy Collins, then an assistant to Lou Henson at Illinois, had offered the 6-9 Thomas a car and $80,000 to play for the Illini. Pearl, then an assistant at Iowa, also sent a tape that he said he had made during a telephone call to Thomas after the Simeon High star had signed with Illinois.

"What has never been told," says Collins, "is that there were 18 phone converstions and out of all that he sent four inches of tape to the NCAA and the tape was spliced." After 16 months of investigation the NCAA cleared Collins of the charges, but found the school guilty of the dreaded "lack of institutional control," a catchall phrase that means, "we know you did something but we can't figure out what."

Neither Collins nor fellow Illinois assistant Mark Coombs shed any crocodile tears over the plight of Bruce, who, in addition to the lost income will be restricted to on campus recruiting for a year-- and that's just the punishment doled out by Tennessee. The NCAA has yet to conclude its own investigation. "I'm not angry anymore," says Collins, "but for me to say, 'I'm going to take the high road and say I feel sorry for Bruce,' my nose would grow like Pinocchio's." If anything Coombs, who spent the last 13 years of his coaching career as an assistant to Collins at Illinois-Chicago, is even more bitter about Pearl's role in the Thomas affair. "Justice will be served," Coombs says. "You don't want to wish ill on anybody, but what he did had a devastating effect on our program and on my professional career."

The professional paths of Pearl and the two former Illinois assistants were destined to cross again when Pearl became head coach of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is in the same conference as Illinois-Chicago. In the four years Pearl coached in Milwaukee before going on to Tennessee he and Collins never shook hands after a game." "It was very tense," Coombs remembers. Pearl was immediately successful as a head coach and took Wisconsin-Milwaukee as far as the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. There his journey ended in a loss to, ironically, Illinois, but it was Pearl's springboard to the Tennessee job.

I was covering Illinois basketball during the recruitment of Thomas and never felt there was any substance to Pearl's charges. Why would Thomas not want to go to Illinois where two of his former Simeon High school teammates already were playing for Henson? I admit I was somewhat biased because I had a personal relationship with Henson. My wife, Leslie, and I played bridge with Lou and Mary Henson and sometimes spent week-ends in their home. Leslie attended the wedding of one of the Henson daughters and I drove down to Champaign for the funeral of their son, Lou Jr. During the investigation, Henson and I often walked together in the morning, going inside the Assembly hall to walk during inclement weather. During one such morning constitutional I asked Lou whether there was any chance there was any truth to Pearl's charges and as best as I can recall, his answer was: "I don't think so. Jimmy tells me there isn't and I believe him." And I believed Lou. To those who don't know Henson the first impression might be, "would I buy a used car from this man?" and the answer is "yes." I have never met a sports writer who didn't like and trust Lou Henson, even the most cynical among us.

During the NCAA's investigation, Illinois hired a lawyer named Mike Slive to represent it. Slive and his partner, Mike Glazier, specialized in representing institutions under NCAA investigation. Glazier is still in the business, but Slive moved into athletic administrtion and is currently the commissioner of the Southeast Conference--of which Tennessee is a prominent member.

Collins says he didn't see Pearl's tear-filled mea culpa on national TV, but "five or six coaches called me right away. It's just ironic how a person who preached integrity and said it was his duty, that he had a calling and a need to turn us in, now says it's not good to tell the truth most of the time. I've known Bruce fo many, many years. He didn't just start doing what he got caught doing. He's a master of deception. I think he's a really good coach, but if you look up the definition of the word 'honesty' Bruce Pearl's picture definitely will not be there."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

By Bob Markus

Like the little engine that could, the Boise State football express is still chugging along. The track ahead is clear and there appears to be nothing to keep the Broncos from high balling into a national championship game. It seems absurd on the face of it to declare any team a sure thing after only one game, let alone hitching a band wagon to a school from an outpost so remote it may as well be in outer space. As a longtime college football writer for the Chicago Tribune, I thought I had been to every campus that housed a football team that mattered, but I've never been to Boise State. In fact, Idaho is one of the four states in the continental United States I've never visited. All I knew about Idaho was that Ernest Hemingway shot himself there and that they grow potatoes in profusion. But since retiring more than a dozen years ago, like a lot of other college football fans, I've fallen in love with Boise State.

What's not to love? The Broncos have overcome nearly impossible odds to put their state, their city, and their blue carpeted football stadium on the map. In the last eight years a Boise State loss in football has been as rare as a Republican alderman in Chicago. They've so dominated the Western Athletic Conference that they might as well be awarded the championship trophy at the end of spring practice. They're 60-1 in conference play in that time, the lone loss a 27-20 defeat at Fresno State in 2005, a year that will live in infamy in Boise. Their record that year was 9-4 and it included the most painful loss in school history. The Broncos had come swaggering into Georgia for the season opener as no one had since General Sherman. This time it was the interloper who got torched. The Broncos took such a dreadful whipping between the hedges that they may still be feeling the sting to this day. Certainly, that 48-13 loss may still be a factor in Boise State's ongoing quest for respect. The not ready for prime time Broncos began burnishing their image the next year when they went 13-0, including a 43-42 thriller over Oklahoma in what many believe was the best college football game ever. Coming as it did in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the BCS venues that had previously been closed to the upstart Broncos, it opened some eyes. When Boise State went 14-0 last season, including another Fiesta bowl victory, the impossible gave way to the merely improbable. Considering that they return 20 of their 22 starters, the Broncos can be forgiven for chanting, "We know we can, we know we can."

And, using their No. 3 preseason ranking and Monday night's 33-30 win over a ranked opponent, on the road, as a springboard, yes they can. They will need to run the table to even get a chance to play for the title. That certainly appears doable, with the toughest test coming up in three weeks against Oregon State. But that game will be played on the friendly blue turf in Boise, where the Broncos have been as untouchable as Elliott Ness. After that it's the usual suspects, all of whom will be huge underdogs. That is not only the Broncos' blessing, but their curse. The strength of schedule issue is not going to go away. If the two teams ranked ahead of them, Alabama and Ohio State, go undefeated, there's no way Boise State gets a sniff of the title game. That's probably fair. Do Alabama and Ohio State face tougher opposition than Boise State? Yes they do. But whether they can weather the tough conference grind is another story. My guess is that they'll both have at least one loss come bowl time. In fact, with Alabama hosting Penn State and Ohio State hosting Miami this Saturday, it's entirely possible that Boise State could be No.1 by Sunday morning. This Saturday, in fact, is a pivotal one for several teams. Florida State travels to Oklahoma in one crucial contest where we'll find out if the Seminoles' 59-6 rout of Samford trumps the Sooners' pedestrian one touchdown win over Utah State. While neither Notre Dame nor Michigan figures to challenge for the national title, their Saturday showdown in South Bend is one of the most important the two bigtime schools have played. It will be a small step forward for the winner, but a huge step backward for the loser.

In addition to the race for the national championship, the race for the Heisman trophy will swing into high gear. The campaign for Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore nearly sank along with the Broncos' title hopes Monday night, but Moore brought it all back when he led his team to the winning touchdown with just 69 seconds remaining. Until then, Moore had been outplayed by Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor. Moore was one of the preseason favorites, but the Heisman does not always go to a known quantity. Who had ever heard of Mark Ingram before the Alabama sophomore running back won it last year? With Ingram possibly out for a second week after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, his hopes for a repeat appear to be fading fast. Stepping forward just as fast could be Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who set a school record with 383 yards last Saturday in a victory over Connecticut. Robinson has the quirky habit of never tying his shoe laces. So if he falls flat on his face against the Irish, you'll know why.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

By Bob Markus

By rights, I should have been in class at the University of Illinois-Chicago. But I had gone instead to my dentist, who also was my cousin, to have an abcessed tooth extracted. Those were not the golden days of dentistry and I was in considerable pain, an ice pack planted against my swollen jaw, as I watched the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants battle for the National league pennant in the rubber match of their three game playoff series.

The Giants had been chasing the Dodgers for seven frantic weeks, having fallen behind by 13 1/2 games in mid-August. There was no way the Giants were going to do it. It was like asking a sprinter to give Usain Bolt a 10-meter head start in a 100 -meter dash. But the Giants went 37-7 over the final 44 games and finally caught up with the hated inter-borough rivals on the final day of the season. Now, it appeared that it was all in vain. Entering the ninth inning, the Dodgers had a 4-1 lead and their ace, Don Newcombe, pitching. I was rooting for the Giants for reasons I cannot now remember or explain and I saw no reason to be optimistic. Newcombe had already thrown 18 complete games and seemed to be in total command. But by the time Bobby Thomson stepped into the batter's box with one out, there were runners at second and third and the deficit was only 4-2. I was beginning to regain hope, because Newcombe was out of the game and even if reliever Ralph Branca handled Thomson, he still had to contend with the ondeck hitter, Willie Mays.

Thomson had beaten Branca and the Dodgers with a two-run homer in the first game of the playoff series, but I was looking only for a single, which would tie the game. Thomson was looking for more and Branca was looking for a place to hide after Thomson poked the ball barely over the short left field fence in the Polo Grounds. It wasn't the longest home run ever hit, but it was the most dramatic and it made legends out of both Thomson and Giants' announcer Russ Hodges, whose call: "The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant," resonates down through the ages. I can still see Dodger left fielder Andy Pafko slumped against the left field wall, having run out of real estate in his vain chase of the lethal fly ball, I can still see Eddie Stanky jumping into Leo Durocher's arm as the jubilant Giants swarmed the field. It was then and remains still baseball's most memorable moment.

Thomson's passing last week brought back those memories in technicolor, strange, because the game was played in black and white. It got me to thinking: What other single moments will be remembered as long as baseball is played. If you want to walk down that road, however, you'd better beware. As Harry Caray used to say when a tough hitter stepped up to the plate: "There's danger here, Cheri." It is all too easy to get caught up in the moment and image that moment will linger into eternity. I confess I've been guilty of it myself. I remember a game where the Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder, Matty Alou, dropped a fly ball that gave the Chicago Cubs a critical victory late in the 1970 season. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, I said that the play would live in infamy or some such balderdash, but in reality it was long forgotten by the time the Pirates had won the N.L. East by five games over the Cubs. Later that year, while covering my first world series game, I wrote that a pivotal play at the plate, which gave the Baltimore Orioles a 4-3 win over Cincinnati, would be remembered for as long as the world series was played. Except for the players involved, I'm probably the only one who remembers it. But baseball, perhaps because of the nature of the game, the rhythm of the season, probably has more myth-making moments than any other sport. Here are my top 10:

No. 10--Ted Williams hits three-run homer off Claude Passeau with two out in the bottom of the ninth to give American League a 7-5 victory over the Nationals in the 1941 All-Star game. Or, if you prefer, Williams' four hit, two homer performance in a 12-0 rout of the NL in the 1946 game. The second blast came off Rip Sewell's famous ephus pitch.

No. 9--Ozzie Smith's walkoff homer in the fifth game of the 1985 NLCS, made memorable because it was his first ever homer as a left handed hitter after 3009 at bats. Also memorable was Jack Buck's call: "Go crazy, folks. Go crazy."

No.8--Ray Chapman dies after beaning. Chapman, the Cleveland Indians shortstop, was not a run-of-the-mill player. He was a gifted fielder, who batted .300 or better three times and led the Indians in steals four times. He was hitting .303 with 97 runs scored at the time of his death. On Aug. 16, 1920, Chapman, who apparently did not see the ball clearly, was hit in the head by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. The sound of the impact was so loud that Mays, thinking the ball had contacted Chapman's bat, fielded the ball and threw it to first base. Accounts vary, but Chapman apparently took a step toward first base before collapsing. He was helped off the field, supported by several players, and taken to a hospital, where he died 12 hours later. The Indians went on to win their first ever pennant and world series.

No.7--Gabby Hartnett's "homer in the gloamin'." Trailing the Pirates by 1/2 game, the Cubs entertained Pittsburgh in Wrigley Field on Sept. 28, 1938. Going into the bottom of the ninth the score was tied 5-5. Darkness was closing in and Wrigley, of course, would not get lights for another 45 years. It was obvious the umpires were going to call the game after the Cubs' final at bat and the game would need to be replayed. But Hartnett, the Cubs' catcher and manager, took matters into his own hands when he sent a two-out, two-strike pitch screaming into the gathering dark. The Cubs went on to win the pennant.

No.6--The Merkle bonehead play. Locked in a tight pennant race, the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants met on Sept. 23, 1908, in New York. With the game tied in the ninth and Moose McCormick on first, Merkle, a 19-year-old rookie and the youngest player in the majors, singled McCormick around to third. Al Bridwell's single brought McCormick home with the winning run and thousands of ecstatic fans swarmed onto the field. But, wait. In part to protect himself from the mob, Merkle got halfway to second and peeled off to get to the Giants' dugout. Seeing this Cubs' second baseman Johnny Evers called for the ball. One was produced from somewhere and Evers tagged second base, essentially forcing Merkle at second. Evers appealed to umpire Hank O'Day, who ruled that Merkle was out. The game was ruled a tie and when the two teams tied for first place in the National league it was replayed, again in New York. The Cubs went on to win the game, the pennant, and the world series. Little did they know that 102 years later they'd still be looking for another world championship

No.5--Willie Mays' catch. The Cleveland Indians were heavy favorites to beat the New York Giants in the 1954 world series. But in Game one in the Polo Grounds, Mays made a catch that turned the entire series upside down. With two runners on base the Indians' Vic Wertz launched a drive to dead center field where the wall stood nearly 500 feet from home plate. It appeared a certainty that the drive would easily score both runners, but Mays turned his back to the plate and sprinted in hot pursuit, finally making an over-the-shoulder basket catch a few strides from the wall. The Giants went on to win the game and the series in a stunning four-game sweep.

No. 4--Bill Mazeroski's walkoff homer. It was game seven in the 1960 World Series and the Yankees had just tied the game 9-9 with a pair of runs in the top of the ninth. But the tie didn't last long. Mazeroski, not known as a home run hitter, drove a Ralph Terry pitch over the wall, the first walkoff homer in a world series clinching game. It was a strange series in other ways. The Yankees' three wins were by scores of 12-0, 10-0, and 16-3. The Pirates four wins all were in tight games. Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson had a monumental series, with 11 hits, five of them for extra bases, and 12 runs batted in. But it was the Pirates' second baseman who always will be remembered.

No.3--Babe Ruth's called shot. This one is as close to myth as it is to reality. Did Babe Ruth point to center field in Wrigley field, before launching a titanic homer to that very spot in the 1932 world series? Who knows? Who cares? It may be a made up story, but its such a good story it's not going to die. I once looked up the Tribune sports page for the day after the Ruthian swat and found that of the half dozen writers who had stories or columns that day only Westbrook Pegler referred to the called shot.

No.2--Kirk Gibson's shocker. Gibson was not supposed to play in the 1988 world series, having injured both legs in the NLCS victory over the Mets. That's one reason the Oakland A's were the heavy favorites to win the series. Gibson was just a spectator for eight and a half innings, but in the bottom of the ninth with two out and a man on base, trailing 4-3, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called for his MVP. Gibson limped to the plate, ran the count to 3-2 against relief ace Dennis Eckersley, then bashed the game-winner into the right field seats. He limped around the bases, pumping his fist, while Jack Buck screamed into his microphone, "I can't believe what I just saw." Neither could most fans. That was to be Gibson's lone appearance in the series, but it inspired his teammates to a five-game series triumph.

No. 1--Thomson's homer, of course.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

By Bob Markus

Before pronouncing the last rites over Tiger Woods' career, it might be well to make sure that the deceased is really dead. Although we are all aware that Woods shot a career worst 18 over par in last week-end's Bridgestone Invitational, very few of us actually witnessed the ghastly event. So wretchedly did Woods perform that by the week-end, when the majority of viewers are free to watch golf on television, Tiger was relegated to the dawn patrol, seen only in sound bites, having started--and finished--his rounds before the live cameras were turned on. Perhaps it's just as well. Even those who can no longer abide the sight of the once universally admired golfer would not have enjoyed watching his self-immolation. My first thought was of the last words of Edward G. Robinson's character in the movie "Little Caesar." A depression era gangster modelled on Al Capone, the mortally wounded Rico Bandello, chillingly portrayed by Robinson, gasps: "Can this be the end of Rico?

Can this be the end of Tiger? Probably not. Can this be the end of the Tiger Woods who has dominated golf almost from the day he earned his pro tour card? Much more likely. Woods' fall from the pinnacle of his profession to the depths of golfing hell is shocking and unprecedented. I've tried to think of another athlete in any sport who has fallen so far and so fast. I can't. First of all, few athletes have ever risen to the heights that Woods attained. Sure, baseball has had its Steve Blass, a world series hero one year, a has-been pitcher the next, unable to throw the ball over the plate if his livelihood depended on it. Which it did. The Chicago Cubs even now are wondering what happened to Carlos Zambrano, a double digit winner for six consecutive seasons who started going south almost the very minute he signed a mega-million dollar contract.

Likewise the Detroit Tigers, who acquired Dontrelle Willis in a trade three years after the crowd pleasing lefty had won 22 games for the Florida Marlins. The Tigers shuttled the increasingly ineffective pitcher back and forth to the minors for two years before finally shuffling him off to Arizona. Fortunately for Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski's sanity the trade with the Marlins also brought them Miguel Cabrera, one of the game's elite hitters. Probably an even better example is another Detroit pitcher from an earlier era, Mark Fidrych, who captivated baseball fans in his rookie year when he went 19-9 with 24 complete games and did it with panache. He won only 10 games over the next four seasons and was out of baseball at the age of 26. But none of those pitchers was even close to being the dominant performer that Woods has been.

The closest I can come to finding a precedent for Tiger's situation is race car driver Tim Richmond, who burst onto the scene in 1980 as rookie of the year in Indianapolis and two months later embarked on a NASCAR career that would see him win 13 races in a six-year span. The last two years of his life would be shrouded in mystery and controversy. He died in 1989 at the age of 34, having lived the life advocated by Nick Romano, the hero of Willard Motley's novel "Knock on Any Door," whose mantra was: Live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse. I covered the 1980 Indy 500 for the Chicago Tribune and although I knew him for only three weeks, Richmond became one of my favorite drivers. He was the talk of the Speedway in the week leading up to qualifying, but on pole day he crashed during the morning practice. That cost him any shot at the pole, but he qualified with relative ease and was racy enough on race day to earn Rookie of the Year honors. He led one lap, finished ninth and ran out of fuel with three laps to go. The last I ever saw of him he was hitching a ride back to the pits on race winner Johnny Rutherford's front wing. The crowd loved it. A few months later, Richmond switched to NASCAR and I switched to baseball, but I followed his progress as best I could. He mostly was spinning his wheels for the first five years, but in 1986 came a switch to the Rick Hendricks team and a breakthrough year. He won seven races that year and finished third in the point standings. But he missed the Daytona 500 at the start of the 1987 season and already the rumors were starting. He was on drugs. He had AIDS. The official reason for his absence was described as double pneumonia. He came back later in the year to win back-to-back races at Pocono and Riverside, two of his favorite tracks. He raced only once more that year and in September resigned from the Hendricks team. His final days were dogged by continuing rumors. He attempted a comeback in 1988, but NASCAR banned him for alleged drug violations which he disputed until his dying day, Aug. 13, 1989. The cause of death was listed as AIDS, which he was said to have contracted from an unknown woman.

Motor racing at the time was only a niche sport and Richmond was nowhere near to being as famous as Tiger Woods. But his story might well serve as a cautionary tale. While Tiger is trying to sort out his life and his game, and fans wonder whether it's his driving or his putting that that has led to his startling collapse, the answer is obvious. It's the rut iron, as writer Dan Jenkins so succinctly described it. The driving and the putting can be fixed, although it won't be at this week's PGA championship, the last of this year's four majors. For once the venue, Whistling Straits, seems to have Woods overmatched, considering its length and devilish contours and the state of his game. What will be harder to fix will be the damage Woods has done himself with the rut iron. Perhaps he should just keep it in his bag.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

By Bob Markus

"There was a guy from The Chicago Tribune who. . . ." Before Dean Smith could finish the sentence, the first he had ever spoken to me, I jumped in and confessed, "Yeah that was me." I had gone to Chapel Hill in the late spring of 1976 to do a story on the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which had assembled at the University of North Carolina to begin working out for the Montreal Games coming up that summer. Smith was going to coach the team, which he himself had hand picked. In constructing his roster the Tar Heels coach had leaned rather heavily on Atlantic Coast conference players. Too heavily, I thought. This was a critical year in U.S. Olympic basketball history. The 1972 team had suffered a stunning upset loss to Russia in the Gold Medal game in Munich and Smith was charged with assembling and coaching a team that would restore the United States to its rightful place at the top of the world. Most Americans felt that the Gold Medal had been stolen by the Russians, not earned. After all, an amazing string of foul-ups by the officials had given the Russians three chances to score the winning basket after time had seemingly expired. We wuz robbed, was the consensus opinion. But I had covered the game and the reality was that the U.S. had trailed throughout and took its only lead of the game when Doug Collins nailed two free throws with a few seconds remaining. We might have been robbed, but what were we doing in that neighborhood in the first place?

I put the blame on Coach Hank Iba, whose slow tempo style of play turned a bunch of thorobreds into a collection of dray horses. Now it was up to Smith to make things right again and, looking at the roster he'd assembled, I wasn't optimistic that he could do it. When I approached him in his office I was prepared for a tongue lashing or at least a verbal shot or two, but Smith couldn't have been nicer. He explained to me why he had made certain choices and, as it turned out, they were the right choices. Although this was the first time I had met Smith I'd been aware of him for years. He had played, as a reserve, on the Kansas team that won the NCAA tournament in 1952 and was on the squad I saw play at Missouri my first year in journalism school, 1953. The Jayhawks reached the NCAA finals again that year, but lost to Indiana by a point.

Smith was already a well-known coach by the time I really got to know him. By that time I was no longer writing a column but was The Tribune's national writer for college football and basketball. I had approached him about doing an in depth interview, but he said he didn't want the spotlight on himself. I told him it would be a story about the team and he agreed to meet me in his hotel room before a game at Clemson. I don't recall any of the conversation, but I do recall that it was a good interview. After that, whenever we ran into each other, Smith would call me by name and we'd exchange pleasantries. That's why I was saddened to read last week that Smith has suffered such severe memory loss that he cannot remember the names of some of his players and most certainly would not recall mine.

"There was a guy from the Chicago Tribune who. . . . . " "Yeah, that was me." When you write about sports for 35 years there are going to be times when you'll ruffle some feathers. I was not known as a "ripper," but nonetheless there were more than a few times when I had to steel myself for a confrontation with a player or coach I had criticized. Usually, the converstion would start out just as I have written here. I would introduce myself as Bob Markus from the Chicago Tribune and . . . ."there was a guy from the Chicago Tribune who wrote that golfers are not athletes," said Arnold Palmer when we had lunch together a few months after I had written just that, on the occasion of Palmer's being named Athlete of the Decade. "Yeah," I replied, "that was me." "Aw, that's all right," Arnie said before making a pretty good argument that golfers are athletes.

"There was a guy from the Chicago Tribune who. . . ." said Billy Martin and, "yeah that was me," I replied. Martin then went off on a 10-minute tirade about the column I had written about his role in a brawl after a bat throwing incident in the 1972 American League Championship season. Martin was managing the Detroit Tigers at the time and his pitcher had just plunked Oakland's Bert Campaneris in the ankle in response to Campy's multihit, two-steal performance. Campaneris had responded by throwing his bat at LaGrow, who fortunately ducked it and then the proverbial all hell broke loose. In the aftermath Martin demanded that Campaneris be banned for life and I felt compelled to remind him that he himself had once charged the mound and thrown a punch at a Chicago Cubs' pitcher, who, unlike LaGrow, did not duck and suffered a fractured cheek bone. In spring training of 1973 I was visiting the Tigers camp in Lakeland when Joe Falls, an iconic columnist in Detroit, approached with a twinkle in his eye and asked sweetly, "Have you ever met Billy Martin?" "No," I said. "I'll introduce you." After Martin finally ran out of verbal steam, he patiently answered all my questions and we never had another problem.

"There was a guy from The Chicago Tribune who. . . . "said Don Shula and "Yeah, that was me," I admitted. Shula was referring to a question I had asked at the previous year's Super Bowl. I can't remember how the question was phrased but I recall it concerned Mercury Morris and the way Shula had handled him. Shula's famous jaw became even more pronounced than usual and he bawled me out in front of my peers for a few minutes before turning to other matters. Now, it was the opening day of the Miami Dolphins' training camp and I was there to cover the camp for the two weeks leading up to the Tribune-sponsored College All-Star Game. I had introduced myself to Shula in his room and he had said, "There was a guy. . . . ." I explained to him that the question actually was meant to produce a positive reaction and that I was sorry if he took it another way. That was the last time it was ever mentioned and we became friends. I eventually learned there was little reason to ask Shula any questions, particularly after a game. He was hands down the best postgame interview in football. You'd go into the locker room with a half dozen questions in mind and he'd answer every one of them in his opening statement and even cover a few points you hadn't even thought of.

"There was a guy from Chicago who. . . ."This was Alex Johnson talking, an angry looking Alex Johnson and he was referring to a column I'd written the previous fall after his California Angels teammates had stopped speaking to him and the team had suspended him. I pointed out that he needed help, not punishment. I wrote that he had "a devil inside him" and Johnson interpreted that to mean he was the devil. "Did you write that?" he demanded. Under the circumstances I didn't say "Yeah, that was me," but rationalized that I didn't think I had actually called him a devil, so I answered, "I'm not certain. When I get home I'll look it up and next time I see you I'll let you know." You do that," he said. The first time the Cleveland Indians, his new team, came to Chicago, I made out my will, kissed my wife and kids goodby and went to Comiskey Park. I entered the visiting clubhouse, which was only about half full and instantly spotted Johnson. I went over and began, "I'm Bob. . . . " "I know who you are you %&$. Get out of my face or I'll . . ." I did not wait to find out what . . .meant.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

By Bob Markus

I think I understand now. I think I know what they mean when they speak of six degrees of separation. They mean that if you take two people, any two people, you can link them together through a chain of association comprising no more than six links. For example: I know Tony LaRussa through covering the White Sox when he was their manager. Tony is good friends with rocker Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys. Wilson undoubtedly has played before someone who knows someone who knows someone who has bought milk from a goat herder in Afghanistan. Therefore there is a link between me and said goatherd, although I've never been to Afghanistan and most certainly never will.

In the past week there have been four men in the news who are separated from me by far fewer than six degrees. It's even easier to connect the dots among the four of them. Don Coryell. Dan Gilbert. Bob Sheppard. George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner, who was The Boss when Bruce Springsteen had only gotten as far as D Street, died this morning, just a few days after Sheppard, the elegant voice of the Yankees for more than a half century, passed away at the age of 99. Coryell, whom I knew as coach of the St. Louis football Cardinals long before he brought Air Coryell to the San Diego Chargers, died last week. Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is still with us, but may have committed professional suicide with his impassioned diatribe against the "disloyal" Lebron James. The letter played well in Cleveland, but it might not play so well among future free agent prospects or in a court of law should James decide to sue over allegations he laid down against the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs. It's unlikely James will go to court, but Gilbert's wallet is already $100,000 lighter, courtesy of NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Steinbrenner is the most obvious link to the other three. He may or may not have known Gilbert, but they had this in common: Steinbrenner once owned a professional basketball team in Cleveland. Unlike Gilbert's Cavaliers, Steinbrenner's Cleveland Pipers won the ABL championship in their lone season in the league before it folded. Tellingly, the Pipers changed coaches in midseason, although John McClendon was not fired, but resigned. Bill Sharman ended up coaching the team for the rest of that championship season. Steinbrenner grew up in Cleveland, earned his first million in Cleveland, and tried to buy the Indians before ending up purchasing the Yankees for a reported $10 million in 1973. The franchise is said to be worth $1 billion today. Steinbrenner was known as a demanding owner, who fired managers and general managers more often than Reggie Jackson uses the first person singular when discussing great players. In his first 23 years, The Boss hired and fired 20 managers, including Billy Martin five times. In 1981 he replaced Gene Michaels with Bob Lemon and won the American league pennant. The next year the Yankees got off to a bad start and Steinbrenner canned Lemon--and brought back Michaels.

I covered the '81 world series and have two memories of it. Most vivid was Goose Gossage drilling Dodgers' third baseman Ron Cey on the helmet and Cey living to tell about it. The second was sitting in front of Steinbrenner in the press box and listening to the Yankees owner berating right fielder Dave Winfield, whom he had signed to a then-record 10-year $23 million contract. Winfield went 1-for-22 in his first world series, eventually causing Steinbrenner to complain: "We need a Mr. October. Winfield is Mr. May." Nor did relations between the two get any better. Winfield eventually sued Steinbrenner for breach of contract and The Boss responded by paying a petty crook $40,000 to "dig up some dirt" on the outfielder. That earned Steinbrenner a "lifetime" suspension, which was later rescinded. It was the second time the Yankees owner had been suspended, the first coming after he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.

Managers and GMs were not the only ones to feel the boss's wrath when things went wrong. Only a handful of employees stayed the whole course with the demanding Steinbrenner. One of them, of course, was Sheppard, he of the cultivated voice who added a touch of class to the Yankee Stadium scene. His classic call: Now batting for the Yankees, number 2, the shortstop, Derek Jeter. Number 2. Jeter was so taken with the presentation that he asked to have it recorded and used whenever he comes to bat.

Steinbrenner's relationship to Coryell is a little more tenuous, but only a little. Steinbrenner spent three seasons as an assistant football coach in the Big 10 before going back to Cleveland to take over the family business, which was shipbuilding. He was a graduate assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State, coached alongside B0 Schembechler as an assistant at Northwestern under Lou Saban, and was an assistant in Jack Mollenkopf's first year at Purdue. He may not have known Coryell, but he most certainly knew some people who knew Coryell. I don't remember much about Coryell as coach of the Cardinals, but I do recall that he picked Jim Hart to be the quarterback and I was pretty tight with Hart, having interviewed him in his rookie year when he was a complete unknown. I covered quite a few Cardinals games in those years and they generally put on a good show. Covering the Cardinals in December or January was always a challenge because Busch stadium had an open air press box. This was partly due to Joe Pollack, the Cards' p.r. man who went around in shirt sleeves on the coldest days. I finally learned how to avoid frozen fingers. I would book a room in the Marriott across the street, watch the game on television and beat my feet to the locker room when the game ended. It worked. Pollack was a good friend, having been my sports editor on the Columbia Missourian when I was at the University of Missouri. My beat was Missouri football and Joe and I would travel to road games in his car. I recall a trip to Nebraska where we stopped off to see an old Indian scout who had been recommended by one of my professors. The scout was acquainted with Black Elk, a storied chief and, who knows, somewhere down the road was an intersection with Sitting Bull and therefore Gen. George Armstrong Custer and you can take that as far as you care to, take it to Appomattix and Robert E. Lee or take it to Washington and Abe Lincoln. Six degrees of separation. Get it?