Being a fan means that we have expectations of the teams we follow, be it a professional or college team. There was once a time when we held different expectations of even our major college teams than of our professional teams.
A professional athlete, at least by definition if not by attribution, plays the game for a wage; he has on-field metrics to attain, the loftiest of which is to win a championship. I think it’s fair to hold most professional athletes to this standard. Though we may praise them for noteworthy efforts in defeat, ultimately, such outcomes are a failure.
A major college athlete, however, is still an amateur. I know that in today’s cynical world, we like to deride the corruption and avarice of major college athletics. I’ll not demure from such characterizations but I’ve known a few who played college football and I can vouch that they saw the importance of getting on with their “life’s work” (as Chuck Noll called it) faster than we, the jaded public, may give them credit. No, such individuals didn’t morph into Rhodes Scholars or lead perfect lives but they took their courses of study no less seriously than the non-athlete students who have always known they were destined for the cubicle farms of modern workaday America.
So, if we allow that the vast, vast, vast majority of college athletes are truly amateurs, then the expectations we place on them must be reasonably commensurate with that amateur status, even for major athletics programs. The lofty olden goal of the college athlete has always been to grow as a person, to use athletics as a past-time and as a means to earn a college degree and prepare for a non-football future. Winning is important, as it is in the real-world, but there were different levels of winning.
The stated goal of Michigan’s legendary head coach Bo Schembechler was to win the Big Ten title and anything that happened in the bowl game afterwards was gravy. Schembechler was 5-12 in bowl games, 2-8 in the Rose Bowl and never won a National Title. Such an absymal bowl record would probably have gotten him fired at Big Blue these days. In 1963, Pitt football compiled a 9-1 regular season record and earned the #3 poll ranking. When they were shut out of the so-called National Title game and offered to play in a lesser bowl game, the athletes declined. Because that bowl game interfered with Finals week.
As I survey major college basketball around this time every year, I hear talk about the “next level” and what type of results in the NCAA Tournament would make for a successful year. For the minnows, it’s just getting into the NCAA Tournament. But for most high-major programs, the goal is to win the National Championship and less is often considered something of a failure. There’s nothing wrong with expecting to win a National Championship. I would hardly call Duke’s program corrupt for holding to such a standard.
Coaches today will talk the same game. No less than Pitt’s Jamie Dixon has stated that winning a National Title, not just breaking in to the Final Four, is Pitt’s true goal. As a Pitt sports fan, I do love that statement. But even though the Final Four and the Elite Eight and even the Sweet Sixteen are largely ESPN-marketing driven creations, they still serve as reasonable levies against what is otherwise our just-win-baby culture. Yet coaches successively come under fire when their programs somehow can’t get thru the Sweet Sixteen, then the Elite Eight, then the Final Four, then the National Championship. If it took the greatest college basketball coach of all-time, John Wooden, 15 years to get UCLA to a Final Four and 16 years to win a National Title, I’m ok with keeping my college sports expectations in check.
My first reaction yesterday when Lebron James finally chose to leave Cleveland was sadistic happiness. Yes, I’m a Pittsburgher through and through and we.hate.Cleveland. On reflection though, I can’t really say that my joy will remain unbridled.
Lebron James spurned his hometown in quite possibly the most egregiously narcissistic fashion ever concocted. A nationally televised one-hour ESPN show during which he chose, with no hint of remorse or regret, to leave the Cavs. It’s one thing to leave. It’s quite another to make a show, to make a spectacle out of it. To rub it in the faces (and sports souls) of those who came to love how you represented their team. And more broadly, their region.
We’re so used to people acting in their self-interests these days that we’ve forgotten to consider the manner in which they should pursue said interests. Should. We’ve removed that word – “should” – from our public discourse. Well, Lebron James’ right to leave isn’t at issue. He gave the Cavs among the best seven years in the franchise’s history.
But he should not have left them in that way. He should not have strung them along for so long. He should have considered the impact of his decision on his (now former) fans and their reaction and their grief and their heart-break. It’s ok that he left and while he didn’t trash talk the city or anything like that, he could have, should have let them down more tactfully, more gently, more humanely. It’s called civility. And it doesn’t start with a damn ESPN special.
As much as I have proven over the years that I hate Cleveland, I won’t be rooting for Lebron James in Miami. He might even cause me to root for the Cavs if they played the Heat in a playoff series. And that is reason enough for me to begin to dislike Lebron James. He’s done the impossible for this Pittsburger – he’s made a Cleveland sports team look sympathetic?! (I think I just threw up in my mouf).
In the analysis of whether Lebron James should or shouldn’t leave Cleveland, those who say he should stay make the point that he has a good chance of winning a title there. I may disagree but my point is that their position is mostly analytical and contains relatively little trace of emotion, in contrast to other similar cases.
Once upon a time, Cleveland lost Manny Ramirez. George Steinbrenner actually hails from Cleveland as well. Right Red 88, The Fumble, The Drive, Jordan over Ehlo, blowing the World Series and so on. It’s safe to say that Cleveland is the most tortured sports city in the country. And now they may lose Lebron.
Joe Posnanski made an excellent point in his article a couple days ago that almost no one outside of Cleveland is saying Lebron James should stay because he belongs in Cleveland, in the same way that Joe Mauer seems to belong in Minnesota or Derek Jeter in NY or Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh.
Lebron seems bigger than his hometown and so goes the line of thought that he should leave. Whether to pursue worldwide Jordan-esque dominance on or off the court. With some exceptions, most stars are bigger than their cities. Especially those not in large markets. Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, KG when he was in Minnesota as well as Ken Griffey Jr in Seattle and Brett Favre in Green Bay.
However, there is/was at some point sentiment for those big dawgs to stay, to make some reciprocal attachment (however anachronistic it may seem) to the city that embraced them. Not so in Cleveland. Lebron James needs to get out screams everyone, including the President.
I can quite fairly be accused of disliking (to put it mildly) Cleveland. They hate us and we hate them. And the world keeps on spinnin’.
Still, I wonder why Cleveland seems to be such an unsympathetic city. Truth be told, outside of the sporting context, it’s not that dis-similar from Pittsburgh or Kansas City… an old town, trying to make good in a service sector economy. It has its faults, its hopes and its fair share of tragedies. However, even Detroit seems to have more defenders than Cleveland.
Can anyone ever again be like Mike? A few nights ago, I was watching an NBA playoff game (yes, Pittsburghers sometimes watch pro basketball) when they cut away to a shot of Michael Jordan. And I got the sudden urge to watch one of the Be Like Mike ads. So I checked out the original on youtube.
“Sometimes I dream / that he is me / you’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be / I dream I move / I dream I groove / like Mike / if I could be like Mike.”
And in the wake of the Ben Roethlisberger and Tiger Woods scandals, it gets me to thinking whether any athlete will ever again be as beloved as Michael Jordan. Oh I get that Cavs and Jazz and Knicks fans will hate him forever and a day but for the casual fan who remembers him, I don’t think anyone will ever approach Michael Jordan. It’s been too many years and too many comebacks since he was the true force of the NBA, of sports in general, but just watch the commercial again.
It’s possible, even probable, that someone someday will approach his greatness on the court (Kobe Bean Bryant, Kevin Durant?). Someone someday may make more money off the court (Lebron James?). But can you ever imagine another athlete inspiring a “Be Like Mike”-style commercial? That pure, almost child-like sense of awe and adulation. It’s a brilliant spot, really.
Kobe & Lebron get a lot of publicity and have lots of commercials out these days. They’re funny. They’re witty. They really make me hope that Lebron leaves Cleveland. I imagine Kevin Durant will get his own set soon. None of those spots will be the same as the “Be Like Mike” ad. Even before his scandals, I don’t think that Tiger Woods was as big and as awe-inspiring as Michael Jordan.
We all know now that Jordan wasn’t the nicest of gentlemen. He berated his coaches and teammates. He gambled almost compulsively. He drove people nuts. Put simply, he was an ass. But he still inspired that commercial and all that goes with it.
Sorry but I don’t want to be like Lebron James or Kevin Durant. I still want to be like Mike. (And I was an Olajuwon fan).
By now, almost everyone has seen the much-ballyhooed videotape of LeBron James getting dunked on by a prep star Jordan Crawford of Xavier. It’s a pretty weak posterization.
What is obviously even weaker is James’ and Nike’s reaction to the dunk. Trying to get it wiped because of some bullshizzle about videotaping rights? hah.
I like Lebron James, despite his Ohioan heritage. He’s a great player. But it’s evident that he has some growing up to do. He doesn’t have to abandon his love of his homeland (though that’s also advisable) but given the success of others before him such as George Steinbrenner and Bill Bellichick, he should probably abandon the state in order to seek his true fortunes.
ESPN.com reports that Rick Pitino may be interested in the Sacramento Kings head coaching job. Having largely failed in two previous stints in the Ligg, Pitino’s outsized ego may push him to give the NBA another shot in order to prove that he has what it takes to succeed on both levels, ala Larry Brown.
With the exception of the aforementioned Brown, few successful college coaches, football or baskeball, seem to prosper in the Pro’s. Tim Floyd, Nick Saban and Mike Montgomery easily come to mind. Pitino’s new nemesis at Kentucky, John Calipari wasn’t successful in the Pro’s.
On the other hand, Bill Callahan failed miserably at Nebraska. Charlie Weis has yet to deliver at Notre Dame. Al Groh chose to go back to UVA rather than coach the New York Jets and although his record in Charlottesville is admirable, it’s not particularly elite.
In college, you have to schmooze alumni and boosters. You have to raise money for the athletic department. You need to court 18-year (oft-spoiled) superstar children who have never heard a bad word about their games. You have to graduate players. You are the face of a program, much moreso than in the Pro’s.
In the Pro’s, you have greater access to your players but have to deal with egos made larger by huge, sometimes unwarranted, contacts. You have to assist a general manager with navigating a salary cap/luxury tax. The season is longer.
Perhaps it takes failing like Steve Spurrier did with the Redskins for a coach to realize that he is better suited to one game or the other. I think Pitino is better suited for the college game. He’s a master at it.
I would posit that coaching in the Pro’s isn’t inherently more difficult; it’s just a different game. It’s not as if the salaries are markedly different. Phil Jackson, for instance, is a master at the Pro game. I don’t think he would be comfortable in college. But for some reason, we in this society equate the Pro’s with the pinnacle in all aspects. Becoming a Pro may be the ultimate goal for an athlete but it shouldn’t necessarily be the case for a coach.
I want a salary cap and comprehensive revenue sharing in baseball. It’s the only way to ensure a proper competitive balance in the sport. It’s the only hope a small market team, such as my Pirates, have for contending on a regular basis. Every game that the NY Yankees or the Boston Red Sox play make this point even more painfully clear to me.
But the naysayers will point out that other small market teams have contended and even won the World Series. True though that may be, it hides the ugly reality that a well-run small market team (such as the Minnesota Twins or Oakland Athletics, NOT the Pirates) can only compete for a couple years in a given cycle. They will build a team, contend for a time, maybe even reach/win a World Series and then watch as their best and brightest leave for the big money spenders, such as New York, Chicago or Boston. Does anyone remember that Manny Ramirez began his career with the Cleveland Indians? Talk about the model small market franchise. The Indians drafted well, managed their payroll, tried to sign their stars to manageable contracts before their hit arbitration or free agency. They made the World Series and then went kerplunk!
A salary cap does NOT guarantee that every team will contend. But it does provide cost certainty such that any team, big market or small, will have a shot to retain its hard-earned, home-grown talent when the big money comes calling (without having to revert to the Reserve Clause).
In the NFL’s infancy, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara decided to give up what could have become a Yankees’ sized advantage in monies in favor of comprehensive revenue sharing. Later, the NFL adopted a salary cap that gives cost certainty to all teams. Today, Ben Roethlisberger is in the midst of a $102 million contract, Troy Polamalu is one of the highest paid players at his position and a team like the Washington Redskins is spending itself into oblivion. Well-run teams like the big market New York Giants or the medium market Pittsburgh Steelers continue to thrive by building rather than poaching.
If MLB did institute a salary cap, perhaps the Pirates would continue to lose; that wouldn’t surprise me one bit. But I think Wellington Mara would be pleased with the idea that well-run, well-built baseball teams would be afforded the opportunity to prosper for many, many years, not just 2-3 years.