Mar 072011

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.

May 082009 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.

John CalipariOn 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.

Apr 062009

* I was all set to write a post about how Arizona should know its place in the college basketball world and that despite its past history, Arizona shouldn’t mentioned in the same breath as UCLA, UNC or Kansas anymore. After all, Mark Few, Jamie Dixon, John Calipari and Tim Floyd had already rejected the Wildcats’ advances.

Then they go out and get Sean Miller. Way to step up to the plate, Jim Livengood. Miller is a fantastic coach; he’ll do well out there. He’s just the guy to transform Arizona from a school defined by its legendary coach, Lute Olson, into a school that defines its head coach.

Sean Miller

* Note to all those arrogant Dukies though – you are a Coach K move away from becoming Arizona. Duke was ok before Krzyzewski arrived in Durham but they’re obviously off the charts with him. As I’ve stated before, there’s no reason to believe that Duke has a “right” to be part of college basketball royalty. Even UCLA had some lean years post-John Wooden. Ultimately, schools like Arizona or eventually Duke will have to transform from being defined by a coach to being defined by the program.

* I really came to respect Tom Izzo’s considerable coaching abilities last year when his Spartans took out Pitt in the NCAA Tournament. Let’s face it – that was not his best team and Pitt was on a roll after winning the Big East tournament. I would honestly consider him among the top 5 major coaches out there, alongside Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and Mike Krzyzewski.

I’m leaving my alma mater’s last two coaches, Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland, off the list because titles are the name of the game. All the coaches on this list have reached the summit. But I honestly believe Izzo is one of the few coaches out there who could step up and compete in the Big East.

* A good friend of mine at Duke recently got very excited that Seth Curry is transferring from Liberty to Duke. Like most single-mindedly, self-absborbed Duke ‘fans’, he decided to trumpet this event to me in the middle of my misery over the Pitt loss. Now that I’m somewhat more clear-headed, I have to say – whoop dee doo! Just what Duke needs; another jump shooter. Nope, not a big or a banger. Another skinny little kid for Duke’s dribble-drive, kick-it-out offense. Curry is a great player but he couldn’t have banged with the big dawgs in the Big East.

Apr 062009

As the college basketball season draws to a close, the coaching carousel has started to spin, as it always does this time of year. Jamie Dixon has been rumored to leave Pitt for a few years now; whether it was when USC a few years ago or now that Arizona is searching. I don’t think he’ll leave… for now.

John Calipari is leaving a pretty good situation at Memphis for the University of Kentucky. Tim Floyd turned down Arizona to stay at USC. Mike Anderson is staying at Missouri after getting a hefty pay raise and who knows what Mark Few at Gonzaga will do.

John Calipari

Some programs are defined by one great coach. Arizona is considered one of the better jobs in the country because Lute Olson made it that way. Likewise,  Jim Calhoun at UConn and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke define their institutions. 

Other great programs define their coaches. Ben Howland at UCLA, Roy Williams at UNC and now John Calipari at Kentucky are just another few names in the long list of winners at their schools. Great though they may be, the institutions are the big schtick, not the coaches.

Money aside, I often wonder why rebuilding a program seems more attractive to a coach than creating his own legacy. Kentucky’s tradition may be greater than most programs in the country but once you reach a certain level, the infrastructure is the same. If we take long-term legacy into account, who’s to say that Memphis under Calipari couldn’t have become the next UConn.

I, for one, think Jamie Dixon could become the icon of Pitt basketball. He could be the one to make it a destination job. Laugh if you will but there was no predetermination that schools such as Kansas or Indiana would become college basketball royalty. College basketball is slightly different from college football in that you don’t need a fertile recruting backyard to be successful. Duke had ZERO players from North Carolina on its roster. Of those 14 players, only two were from the same home state.

I don’t think anyone would fault Calipari for taking the enormous pay raise he got from Kentucky. I think he is poised to become the next great Wildcats coach and will rule the SEC for years to come. But if he had been offered “only” $1 million more, would it have been prudent to leave a program he was already building into a dominant force. We will never know.

Mar 292009

By and large, I consider myself to be a fortunate sports fan. My teams generally do well. Two Superbowl titles, 2 Stanley Cups, 7 Sweet Sixteens, 1 Elite Eight, 1 Champions League, 1 FA Cup, Curtis Martin, Larry Fitzgerald, many others. And someday the Pirates will get to .500 and all of Pittsburgh will go nuts.

I think a reasonable standard of expectation for a fan is for one’s teams to be in the hunt, in any given year. Nothing more, nothing less. All the crazies who expect a title every single season can stay in Lexington or Tuscaloosa or the Bronx.

In any given year, I expect that the Steelers will win 10+ games and have a shot at the Superbowl. I expect the Penguins to make the NHL playoffs and have a shot at the Stanley Cup. I expect that Pitt basketball will make the Field of 65 and have a shot to make a run to the Final Four. I expect Liverpool FC to contend for the Premiership, Champions League, and/or FA Cup titles. Eventually, I would like to expect that Pitt football will win 8-9 games in most years and once every few years when the pieces fall into place, they should contend for a national title.

Pitt vs Villanova

But even with what I believe are reasonable expectations, you inevitably get heart-breaking losses. I don’t have to tell you which loss I’m “mourning” today. I would have to say that Pitt’s loss to Villanova ranks second only to Francisco Cabrera’s single for Atlanta vs the Pirates in the 1992 NLCS. Even the Penguins recovered from David Volek. The Pirates have never recovered from that loss.

Pitt basketball is a strong program and they’ll rebound, rebuild and contend again. I know we had a successful season. I’m proud of how they battled and banged with the big boys. We’ll be back. I expect it.

Mar 272009

In a game that was as tough as any knowledgeable college basketball fan expected, the Alma Mater advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in during the 64-team era with a 60-55 win over Xavier.

What has to be scary for any Pitt opponent is that the Panthers have to play a good game in the tournament. It’s going to take their first truly spectacular effort in the Round of Eight against fellow Big East foe Villanova.

Levance Fields

More broadly, this has to be so gratifying for anyone associated with the program – athletes, coaches and the fans. For years, I’ve had to hear “but they can’t get past the Sweet Sixteen” from the naysayers. I’m not a huge fan of assessing a program’s place in the hierarchy simply based on success in a one-and-done tournament but that’s an issue for a different day.

It seems clear this team has been been tight in the first three rounds but now, I think they can finally start playing free and loose. And I just love that when asked about the impact of this win, Levance Fields responded, “It kind of gets the monkey off our back. But we came here to win two games.”

Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

Mar 232009


As we enter the second week of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Arizona Wildcats are generating a lot of discussion due to the controversial nature of their inclusion in the field of 65 at the expense of some other teams, notably St. Mary’s. The #12 seeded Wildcats have pulled off two successive wins to reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Chase Budinger, Arizona Wildcats

Now the same pundits who decried Arizona as undeserving are forcing themselves to eat crow because of these wins. No one who follows college basketball should necessarily be surprised that Arizona finally put it together and is taking advantage of the talent they possess. But I am of the opinion that wins in the tournament does not necessary justify their inclusion after the fact. While a team’s latest run of games is a factor, projecting a team into the field is done largely on the basis of its total season’s performance. Assessing in hindsight a team’s worthiness is not an intellectually rigorous process.

This is the problem with single elimination tournaments. Though you have to work your tail off to get into the post-season, the tournament ultimately makes us all forget about the regular season. One bad night erases a good regular season. Two good nights erases 30 games of mediocrity.

I actually believe that Arizona deserved inclusion over the likes of St. Mary’s. But that doesn’t mean they are more or less deserving today than they were on Selection Sunday.

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