Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tressel from Every Angle

The Postmortem: Dohrmann essay = bleh. Lots of things we knew, a few fun but irrelevant tidbits from the past, and anonymous sourcing; something tells me the author won't be winning another Pulitzer for this one. (Did you hear that George Dohrmann won the Pulitzer? Pulitzer Dohrmann Dohrmann Pulitzer Pulitzer!)

The Reaction: Ohio State fans are blasé. Every other fan base sees this as an opportunity to ascend the conference ladder. Except for Indiana fans.

The Candidates: No one has any clue. Much will depend upon just how severely Ohio State is hammered by the NCAA; it's tough to believe that an Urban Meyer type candidate will want to take on a reclamation project. Remember, USC had to go with their fourth or fifth option after getting hit with sanctions, and USC is arguably a better job than Ohio State (the weather is nicer, at least). I'm putting exactly zero credence into any of the lists floating around.

The 2011 Season: Who knows. The biggest question mark is whether Terrelle Pryor after game five; opinions seem to range from "probably not" to "absolutely not." If Pryor is gone, Ohio State will be starting either a true freshman or Joe Bauserman, a lesser-of-two-evils situation if ever there was one.

Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, the pain potentially doesn't end there. The NCAA meeting is set for mid-August, so there probably won't be enough time for a 2011 bowl ban or scholarship reduction. But Pryor wasn't the only player suspended for the first five games next year, and while the others haven't been implicated in the automobile-related hijinks, further suspension isn't out of the question. And Dohrmann's piece suggested that many more players on the Buckeyes have received improper benefits. Without better sourcing than Dohrmann provides, however, the NCAA is going to be hard pressed to follow up on those claims.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Tressel Resigns

Not a shock that it happened, but certainly surprising that it happened before the 2011 season:

The Ohio State University announced today that it has accepted the resignation of Jim Tressel as head coach of its football program. Luke Fickell will serve as interim head coach for the 2011-2012 football season. Recruitment for a new head coach – which is expected to include external and internal candidates – will not commence until the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season. 
“In consultation with the senior leadership of the Board of Trustees, I have been actively reviewing matters attendant to our football program, and I have accepted Coach Tressel’s resignation,” said President E. Gordon Gee. “The University’s enduring public purposes and its tradition of excellence continue to guide our actions.”
Boom. We're still working with incomplete information on this (the George Dohrmann story scheduled to go up on SI.com later today will help explain some things), so any speculation beyond what is known seems unnecessarily premature. I'll post some extended thoughts once the article is released.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Big Ten Could Extend Invitations to Maryland and Georgia Tech. Wait, What?

The Boston Globe has a thumbsucker today on the strength of the Big East's position and college football television negotiations generally. But in a classic example of burying the lede, the article includes this paragraph, almost as a throwaway:
There may be more trouble coming for the Big East if the Big Ten decides to move forward again in a few years; already there are rumblings that it might go to 14 teams, with an eye on Georgia Tech and Maryland, which would significantly increase its television footprint.
Those rumblings must be awfully low frequency, because it's the first I'm hearing of them, and I'm pretty compulsive about reading every news-like substance about the Big Ten.

Neither school makes much sense. Georgia Tech in particular would stretch the geographic footprint perhaps beyond the breaking point. Yes, new television markets are great, but every non-revenue team is going to have to travel to Atlanta (or, in Georgia Tech's case, to Chicago, and Minneapolis, and State College, and Lincoln). Those airline miles add up on a budget. And while Maryland and Georgia Tech are fine programs, well, when's the last time you make a point of watching a Terrapins football game?

For the Big Ten to extend an invitation for another team, that program has to be able to create $30 million or so in revenue for the league to break even. Otherwise, further expansion is a net loss for the other twelve programs in the conference. Without further verification, I'd chalk this rumor up to "journalist needs to make deadline and fill space," and nothing more. Next time, at least choose plausible teams.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The College Football Stock Bubble

I think we've seen this before:

The Big East is now officially on the clock. The league has until September 2012 to determine its football membership because that's when ESPN's 60-day exclusive media rights renegotiating window with the league begins. 
So what schools will the Big East add? Numerous candidates have been mentioned including Villanova, Central Florida, East Carolina and Houston. However, college industry sources told CBSSports.com the league is also considering the possibility of pursuing Army and Navy as football members to get to 12 teams
"I believe the league will approach the academies first and if they turn the Big East down, then they'll approach the other candidates," a college football industry source said. "There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The Big East would have to convince them that's where they want to be."
The league would be attracted to Army and Navy because of their national appeal and also because the schools could join as football-only members. If they joined, along with another member, to get the Big East to 12 schools, a championship game would be on the table.
The only real difference between the housing bubble and this is that, when television networks realize how much money they are paying for Army vs. USF and have to recoup that money somehow, it's not going to wipe out vital sectors of the American economy. But minor distinctions like that aside, this is lunacy. With all due respect to the service academies, whose fine young men not only entertain us but risk their lives for us, no one cares about their teams except for when they play Notre Dame or each other. And, they usually stink, though the past few years have been a welcome respite from that.

Someone here is wrong, and you get three options. If I'm wrong, college conferences can shuffle and repackage leagues into tranches that everyone will love and the amount television networks will pay for these games will keep going up until the sun goes supernova. If the Big East is wrong, ESPN isn't going to care a whit about the infinitesimal fraction  of the New York market Army brings. If ESPN is wrong, they're going to have an awfully funny-looking television contract in 2016 when people don't suddenly start caring about Navy football just because they might end up in the Orange Bowl at season's end and because their presence is necessary for a Big East Championship Game. It's a shame that ESPN is a fully-owned subsidiary, because if it's the third option, I'd love to be able to short that stock before people realize that all the Bud Light commercials in the world can't eternally finance multi-million dollar deals for the Flotsam-Jetsam conference.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

By The Numbers: Big Ten Records Since 1995

The invaluable Northwestern blog Lake The Posts (the good kind of invaluable, like peace or love) has a post on the records of the Big Ten football teams over the past 15 years, along with a few other interesting tidbits like the bowl records during that time. Because they're just excel screenshots I am going to shamelessly misappropriate the graphics from over there:

He has the total record figures as well, but I find those less interesting because quality in schedules tends to vary quite a bit. That's true of conference schedules as well (two teams got a chance to miss Ohio State every year) but with the revolving schedule that tended to even out a bit better.

A few things that jump out to me:
  • The Big Ten is not, nor has ever been, the Big Three of Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State: There was a lot of talk during the last offseason about the Big Ten Great Chain of Being, partly because of the need to split the divisions and partly because Michigan's fall from grace left a hole at the top of the standings. While Penn State has been a quality program over the past 15 years, Wisconsin deserves just as much, if not more, credit as a top-class Big Ten football program. Since 2000, the conference has been split between five quality programs (Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State) and six mediocre or bad programs, with a clear break between Penn State and Purdue/MSU. But Iowa and Wisconsin tend to get left out of the "top program" talk, for whatever reason.
  • Northwestern hasn't been "Northwestern" since before high schoolers were conceived: Those 1995 and 1996 seasons are doing a lot of the work in the 15 year breakdown, but look at the 10 year breakdown and you'll see a program that 1.) averaged 3.5 wins a season, 2.) is just behind Michigan State and Purdue, and 3.) has put clear distance between Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana.
  • Indiana has been consistent, and awful: From 1995-99, the Hoosiers won 9 games. Indiana won 8 games the next five years, and 9 games in the past five years. They managed to cram enough of those wins into 2007 to make a bowl game, but through Mallory, Randle-El, Hoeppner, and Lynch, it has been Indiana's manifest destiny to go 2-6 most years with a few awful seasons thrown in for good measure. I know this isn't breaking news, but the steadiness of the suck is peculiar.
  • There has been a clear upper, middle, and lower class over the past five seasons: Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State have separated themselves from the pack (good thing all three were put into the same division), while only one win per season separates Iowa and Michigan State at 4th from Illinois and Purdue at 8th. The aggregate numbers obscure some things--Northwestern and Purdue have been steady as she goes while Illinois and Michigan have flopped from wild success to incompetence, but in total there isn't much separating those six programs recently.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Screw the MEAC

I'm sympathetic to complaints that the Big Ten and other major conferences are trying to put the screws to mid-majors because, hey, I actually agree with that. The ur-text to the announcement about the Big Ten maybe possibly perhaps looking into providing its players with a little something for expenses was that maybe it's time for the MAC to GTFO of Division I, or at least the juicy, expensive part of Division I. Your feelings about that will probably depend upon your attachment to the Western Michigan athletic program and its ilk.

So I can at least understand the concerns about the Big Ten proposal being an iron fist of robber baron competitiveness in the velvet glove of student-athlete wellbeing, even if I disagree with them. This, on the other hand, is just nonsense:
The NCAA just hammered some schools from the SWAC and MEAC for low graduation rates, which I find ironic -- given that the NCAA shows absolutely no intelligence at all by delivering that punishment. 
Of the 58 harshest penalties handed out by the NCAA for poor APR results, half of them went to schools in those two conferences, a lopsided amount given that historically black schools account for just 7 percent of NCAA's Division I. 
This isn't a black thing or a white thing, of course. It's a money thing. And leagues like the SWAC and MEAC -- leagues without BCS football or high-major (or even mid-major) basketball -- have no money at all. 
Schools such as UConn and Tennessee and Florida and UCLA have ample money to pay for incredible academic support services for athletes -- tutors, computers, advisors. Meanwhile, student-athletes in poorer leagues like the SWAC and MEAC make do with very little of that.
Part of the Grand Bargain that schools make by having athletic programs is that they have to make at least an honest pretense of educating the players. These are schools, after all. And we understand that, by and large, the kids playing football and basketball wouldn't have gotten into the universities if not for their athletic ability, and we understand that they are likely to struggle with their schoolwork more than the average student, so we expect that these schools (that word again) will provide the necessary resources for them to succeed. That's doubly true in the low conferences; the idea that kids at Prairie View A&M will be making a living on the hardwood is optimistic to the point of lunacy.

If Hampton or Coppin State or Jackson State can't even educate its players, then what the hell are they doing? They certainly aren't competing on the field (Kenpom has the MEAC and SWAC as the worst two autobid conferences in already-bloated D-I basketball). If they don't have the resources to compete or the resources to prepare its students for their future, maybe it's time for those schools to think for a few moments about their priorities. If they "don't have money at all," then stop spending that absence of money on D-I basketball and start spending it on more important things, like your students.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Basketball Coaches Are Human, Too

With just one exception, I am fully positive that college basketball coaches eat, sleep, breathe, and have fully formed emotions just like you and I. We want to be loved, and trust, and paid well, but not at the expense of hating every last waking moment of our lives and waiting with anxious hope for the moment that Spanish Flu returns to give us sweet repose from this world. On that note, despite being completely shocking before the switch, maybe Ed DeChellis's move to Navy isn't quite so inexplicable:
This move looks like an absolute stunner on the surface – a high-major coach leaving for a low-major job and a pay cut of $200,000 annually. But a lot entered into it that makes it more easy to comprehend. 
DeChellis, now 52, is not interested in coaching more than another 8-10 years, tops. He felt a lack of respect and commitment from the Penn State administration. When he asked for raises for his assistants, one of whom is the lowest paid of 36 in the Big Ten, he was rebuked. 
After reaching the Big Ten tournament final and squeaking into the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure, he was unable to get an extension or raise on a contract lasting three more seasons. 
His daughters have completed college and are out of the house. His wife Kim, I've been told, loved the idea of living in a beautiful area bordering the major metro of Washington/Baltimore. 
And there's the enchantment and majesty of the Academy, a spectacular campus full of people who follow a higher calling than bank accounts and pocket cash.
John Gasaway, echoing this:
In the real world, where employment is kind of important, a person in the situation I’ve just described is going to update the top of their resume (”Became first coach in 17 years to lose a tournament game to the guy I lost to”) and start working their contacts. But DeChellis isn’t in the real world. Until yesterday he was a major-conference head coach. He’s supposed to barricade his office door and hold on for dear life. 
And for what? To avoid the salary cut he’s now taking? If you’re Ed DeChellis in the spring of 2011, there’s a prohibitive likelihood that a salary cut is on the way, no matter what. By taking the job at Navy the coach has negotiated this cut on a timetable of his own making. Besides, any normal human would be thrilled to be pulling down a reported $450K in a quaint, historic, and highly livable Chesapeake town located in close proximity to substantial cities and airports. No, the Middies aren’t going to the Final Four anytime soon, but expectations at the 5700-seat Alumni Hall are set accordingly. Not to mention the unique nature of the Naval Academy’s student population means the regular recruiting grind is, mostly, a thing of the past for DeChellis. (He now has little or no reason to attend all those AAU events. Woe is Ed!)
Sometimes ambition runs dry, and you realize that a little extra money isn't worth the gnawing pain at the back of your eyeballs. DeChellis took his alma mater to the NCAA Tournament and now gets to go into semi-retirement (relatively speaking of course; now his work load will drop to 40-60 hours a week), earn half a million dollars each year in a nicer area of the country, and he won't wake up every morning wondering whether he will have a job if 19 year olds don't make their free throws next February. You or I would have thought long and hard about making that same decision. It is a testament to the insanity of college coaches that more do not do the same.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ed DeChellis to Lolwut

(U mad?)

Naval Academy Director of Athletics Chet Gladchuk announced Monday that Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis is leaving his post at Happy Valley to become the 19th head basketball coach at the Naval Academy. 
"To have one of the most highly respected coaches and educators in the sport join our Navy family is a great day for the program and the Academy," said Gladchuk. "Ed's maturity, integrity, character and accomplishments at Penn State have made him one of the most respected role models in the coaching ranks. His career is all about building programs with educational priorities in place, including graduating every senior that has ever played for him, and in the end achieving team goals that resonate with competing for championships. Ed will make a positive and impactful impression on Navy Basketball in short order."
Basketball Navy is not Football Navy. Football Navy runs a wonky system, rips through the rest of mid-majordom, and frustrates a major team or two along the way to an 8-5 record and bowl appearance. Basketball Navy, well, sucks.

I have theories for the move, none of them very good:

  • DeChellis got tired of waiting for Penn State to get serious about basketball. Maybe, but Penn State's "not serious about basketball" is about three standard deviations to the good side of the bell curve past what Navy can accomplish even with complete and utter dedication.
  • This is as good as things are going to get for Penn State, so best to get out while the getting is good: Penn State will likely be quite awful next year, and DeChellis is on not very thick ice already, despite the NCAA Tournament appearance last year. Better to do the "you can't fire me, I quit" routine when you have some plausible deniability, not after you go 1-17. Still: Navy?
  • DeChellis is married to the sea: Plausible.
  • DeChellis bought a house in Maryland when Greg Williams retired and now he can't back out: Also plausible.
Given the tempo Penn State basketball usually moves, expect DeChellis's replacement to be named sometime in 2013.

Will Paying Players Destroy College Basketball?

I absolutely love John Gasaway, the original Big Ten Wonk, but I have to admit that I think this isn't the most compelling argument he has ever made:

If the Big Ten wants players in its revenue sports to have “full cost of attendance” scholarships, the league has the resources to make it happen. (They have the resources to make it happen even assuming the bottom-line figure would need to be doubled and shared with an equal number of non-revenue athletes in women’s sports to survive Title IX scrutiny.) But creating these new dollarships, while merely cementing existing imbalances in college football recruiting in place, would revolutionize college basketball recruiting overnight. The elite high school football player already chooses between programs that can afford full cost of attendance scholarships. Not so the top high school basketball talent. In a sport where TV exposure and NCAA bids are spread (relatively) far and wide, talent currently has far less incentive to travel in packs. That will change, dramatically, when major conference programs can offer recruits a better financial package than what mid-majors are able to afford. 
These are two very different sports — each with its own very different revenue model — and if you ask me if they share any needs in common I would cite just two things: better athletic directors and a new definition of amateurism. If you’re concerned that the very same SEC West football coaches who make plainly unprincipled decisions receive millions of dollars while their players struggle to afford a plane ticket home, the solution is two-pronged: 1) principled athletic directors creating compensation packages more aligned with empirical reality than with the HR equivalent of the mid-00s housing bubble; and 2) allowing stars in any college sport to strike whatever deals they can with agents and advertisers. Meantime tell college football no one wants them exporting their stale oligarchical ways to the one revenue sport where surprises actually happen.
During the course of the last paragraph, Gasaway links to his essay on amateurism, which I encourage everyone to read when they get the opportunity. The Readers' Digest version is that the NCAA should allow deals between athletes and third-parties such as agents and clothing manufacturers, a suggestion with which I agree.

But the juxtaposition of that article and the complaints quoted above is jarring. NCAA protestations aside, the reason that college athletes have not been allowed to pursue these opportunities is because the playing field will be skewed even further towards major teams; Longhorns will sell a lot more jerseys than Owls of either the Rice or Temple variety. 

Of course, it is already conventional wisdom that the Big Ten made their proposal to put the screws to the MAC and the Sun Belt, so Gasaway's point might seem irrefutable. But the scheme only works because football teams are massive. Basketball programs only get 13 scholarships; an extra $5000 per scholarship is only $65,000 per year, or approximately one-and-a-half secretaries. Title IX will require an extra 13 Super Scholarships in women's sports as well, but we're still only at $130,000 per year, and if the athletic department at Long Beach State can't scrounge that together, maybe Division I just isn't for them.

Besides, it's doubtful whether slightly different compensation for athletes would even mean The End of Long Beach State, either in reality or in concept. Assuming that only the major conferences (major defined as "BCS auto-qualifying") adopt the Super Scholarship proposal and that those teams recruit three basketball players a year, that means about 222 recruits each year will accept major conference scholarships. (I'll call it 225 for simplicity's sake). Of the Rivals Top 150 recruits for 2011, only 16 are headed to "mid-major" teams anyway, even without Super Scholarships. (Those recruits are headed to Memphis, Charleston, Xavier (3), BYU, Harvard, Alcorn State, SMU, Western Kentucky (2), North Texas, Houston, George Mason, New Mexico, and Butler). And even of those schools, several would be either certain to pay the small amount of money (Xavier, BYU, Butler, maybe SMU, North Texas, and George Mason) or aren't paying money anyway (Harvard). A few players each season will choose Iowa State or Depaul over Wichita State because of the extra $10 a day, but is this really going to be enough to upset whatever balance of power exists in college basketball?

More likely, this proposal, like death, will focus the minds of athletic directors around the country. Men's basketball is still a revenue sport even as football drains athletic department coffers. Rather than pouring endless resources into football, many mid-level schools may decide that the Cinderella-friendly nature of college basketball provides greater bang for the athletic department buck. And unlike third-party contracts, compensation is capped; a top recruit is turning down perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars by choosing to play for Detroit or Central Michigan rather than Ohio State if they get to sell their personages while on campus. If competitive balance is the concern, the Big Ten proposal should be seen as the lesser of two evils by college hoops fans.

Ron Zook for Illinois AD


Longtime Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther announced his retirement last week. Most of the focus has been on what effect that could have on often-embattled coaches Bruce Weber and Ron Zook, but seeing as how those programs have achieved at about their historical norm most years under those coaches, with one wildly successful season apiece, the danger to those two is probably a bit overstated. Zook in particular seems to have Illinois ensconced in the meaty middle of Big Ten teams, and while that doesn't sound like much, Illinois went over .500 twice in the past decade. Meaty middle is an accomplishment in Champaign, at least on the football field.

Judging from the past paragraph and the title of the post, you probably know where I'm going with this: isn't Ron Zook the perfect athletic director candidate? He has spent a lifetime in major conference college football, and while he hasn't been particularly successful, he probably has more of a sense of what it a coach needs to win than your average businessman or athletic department employee. The coach-to-athletic director move isn't unprecedented (the best athletic director in the Big Ten is Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez).

Besides, 90% of an athletic director's job is spent either fundraising or thinking up zany schemes to make those fundraising efforts even more successful. Zook's recruiting prowess is unquestioned, and even the bulk of Illinois fans that don't particularly care for Zook the Coach seem to like Zook the Person. At 57 years old, Zook, may be tiring of chasing down high school football players during every waking moment of his free time. At the very least, the hors d'oeuvres are better when you spend every waking moment of your life chasing down millionaires looking to part with their disposable income. As for the other 10% of the job, search firms do most of the heavy lifting when communicating with prospects for coaching vacancies, and everyone in the business knows the top ten or so candidates each offseason. Figuring out which one of those candidates is actually a good head coach is probably little better than a crap shoot; just ask the guy booing Gene Chizik on the tarmac, or Charles "Turner Gill or Racism" Barkley.

There's a thousand reasons this won't happen, not least of which is that the football season is less than 100 days away--not exactly the best time to announce a new head coach, even if the promotion was made from within. And I'm sure this will seem like a success-through-failure promotion to many, even if sound football strategy is not a prerequisite or even helpful as an athletic director. But Illinois can, and probably will, do a lot worse.

Friday, May 20, 2011

RIP Macho Man

Most of the Twitter world is aware by now that Randy Poffo, a.k.a. Macho Man Randy Savage, passed away earlier today. Amazingly, the death wasn't the "unspecified causes" that most professional wrestlers die from in their mid-40s to early 60s, but a car accident. If you wrestled professionally in the 1980s, you probably feel a little bit like you're 55 minutes into a Final Destination movie.

For those of you who didn't grow up male during the 1980s or 90s, The Macho Man was a big deal; not quite Hulk Hogan big, but not too far off. In hindsight, the Macho Man gimmick is almost impossible to explain. A somewhat-rednecky guy with a peculiar accent wore flamboyant clothing (see picture above), and America loved it. I certainly loved it. He wasn't a good wrestler, exactly (his matches tended to run a little long and tended to become too punch-and-kick focused), but in his heyday there were few more entertaining characters.

The Macho Man character is itself something of a hybrid between the two wrestling archetypes. The first archetype is to take some occupation or ethnicity--a repo man, or a waste management employee, or a Native American, or an accountant--and play every stereotype at maximum volume. When these characters go out of style, wrestlers become ordinary everyman-type dudes that wear normal clothing and fight to settle their differences.

But what was Macho Man, exactly? Someone from Mars or France or Manhattan who has no idea what professional wrestling is would look at the picture above, hear "Macho Man," and assume that Savage was a play off of gay culture or faux-aggressive effeminacy, but he most certainly was not that (the WWF wasn't subtle when it chose to play that angle). Yet he wasn't an ordinary person either, even by 1980s standards. A musclehead in a cowboy costume laced with psychadelic toilet paper and speaking in California beach lingo with a half-Creole accent doesn't seem like an emotionally powerful trigger, but for years it resonated powerfully with audiences. Men cried at his "wedding," which took place in an arena on national television wearing a gigantic hat

Eventually the shtick felt silly, even by professional wrestling standards. Savage reinvented himself, with some success, as ordinary badass but even then couldn't quite relinquish the flair. The moment was gone, and professional wrestlers tend not to fade gracefully.

There will be some jokes about his death today, and most of them will be distasteful, and I will laugh at them regardless. Still, allow me this moment of respect for a person who's death of a person who reached the apex of his calling, however silly or inconsequential that calling may have been.

Primetime Big Ten 2011: We're Probably Getting Screwed a Little

With the Big Ten Network slate of primetime games released yesterday, we now know all 15 night games the Big Ten will play in 2011-12 (there's a road game between Ohio State and Miami not listed):
Sept. 1 UNLV at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN 
Sept. 2 Youngstown State at Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Sept. 10 Notre Dame at Michigan, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN Virginia at Indiana, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Sept. 17 Arizona State at Illinois, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Sept. 24 North Dakota State at Minnesota, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Oct. 1 Nebraska at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2 Notre Dame at Purdue, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2 
Oct. 8 Ohio State at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2 Michigan at Northwestern, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Oct. 15 Northwestern at Iowa, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Oct. 22 Wisconsin at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2 Penn State at Northwestern, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network 
Oct. 29 Wisconsin at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
My first thought is...meh. A lot of those games, especially the BTN fare, is of the "bludeon or be bludgeoned" variety; is UNLV at Wisconsin or Youngstown State at Michigan State really any more interesting because it is happening under very powerful light bulbs? Tailgaters in Madison and East Lansing will appreciate the later starts because otherwise they'd be sitting in a parking lot at 7 AM on a Saturday preparing for an 11 AM kickoff, but that's a small group of individuals. On the bright side, Indiana won't be playing in 80% of those night games as in previous years, so I won't have to choose between Hoosier football and the national network night game, which is not really a choice at all most weeks, notwithstanding my undying devotion to the conference.

A few games fall well outside of the meh category; Notre Dame at Michigan, Wisconsin at Ohio State, and Nebraska at Wisconsin are the easy choices, and maybe your idiosyncratic preferences say that a couple more games are in the top quintile of interestingness. It would be cool to see The Game get played at night eventually but since the heartland gets cold at night in November (and notwithstanding macho he-man We Play In Everything talk) that might still be a ways off.

Then there's the middle range of interest--Arizona State at Illinois, Notre Dame at Purdue, Virginia at Indiana, anything involving Northwestern. These feel like the sorts of games that 3:30 was made for. There's even an argument to be made that 11:00 AM would be the best slot for these games if these programs actually want people to watch them. However intriguing Penn State vs Northwestern might be (and it is intriguing), that game will be going up against the best two games the rest of the nation has to offer. Even diehard Big Ten dopes like me will be, at best, flipping the channels; at wost, we'll forget to flip back when Oregon/USC or whatever gets interesting.

Also: North Dakota State? Sorry, Minnesota.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Schools Are Not Profiting From Bowl Games. So What?

This post from the Wiz of Odds caught like wildfire on the intertubes yesterday, and I'd be remiss if I didn't comment:
When the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) announced matchups for its five games last December, the Fiesta Bowl was handed the biggest clunker of them all — Connecticut vs. Oklahoma. 
But Fiesta officials never had to worry about monetary risk because they were handing off the financial burden to the Huskies and Sooners. 
Each team, as part of the agreement to play in the Glendale, Ariz., game, had to purchase 17,500 tickets with a face value between $105 and $235. 
Combined, Connecticut and Oklahoma sold only 8,338 of their allotted 35,000 tickets. That left the schools and their conferences on the hook for a jaw-dropping $5.14 million in "absorbed" tickets — or tickets that go unsold to the public or have to be purchased by the university for use by staff, families of players, coaches and even the band. 
Last season marked a record 35 bowl games and nearly every game required teams to purchase a minimum number of tickets. Teams, in search of prestige, never hesitate to take on the financial burden.
The Fiesta Bowl sales were going to be awful no matter what because Connecticut; this is an unavoidable truth. That the two largest ticket-gorges came from the two schools playing in Tempe is completely unsurprising. Had this been an opening round matchup at a neutral site of a playoff, no one would have went either. Connecticut.

There are two takeaways from this though, one negative and one neutral. The negative story isn't the "losses" from the Fiesta Bowl (the BCS and bowl payouts will more than compensate those schools), but the losses from the crap bowls that feature Sun Belt vs Conference USA. Those teams absolutely have to attend those crap bowls, because a refusal to attend would annihilate recruiting for years ("why go to Northern Illinois when they won't even go to the bowl game they earned?") That may work for Notre Dame but not Ball State, but when Ball State can't pay the bills anyway, adding an extra six figures in ticket losses is downright disgraceful. 

But this is only a problem at schools that, relatively speaking, no one cares about; that's why it's a problem. The big schools lose money on bowls because they don't try to make money on bowls. For just one example, Wisconsin picked up the tab for over a thousand people to make the multi-day trip to Pasadena, including a few hundred band members and other extremely marginal members of the team. The players stay in nice hotels, take in Disneyland, eat expensive meals, etc. There is plenty of fat to be cut, except that, why cut the fat? The fat is where all the flavor is, and if athletic programs want to reward their teams for good seasons rather than hoarding a little extra money, then why not go ahead? I'd rather have teams willingly go into the red and players have themselves an experience of a lifetime than know that the program maximized its earning potential on behalf of the coaching staff salaries that will inevitably absorb that money.

Of course, it's only the Wisconsins and Ohio States that have that luxury. For Central Florida and UTEP, a bowl trip is just another game with a huge ticket bill tacked on. Those schools aren't merely forgoing profit for the sake of their players. Then again, if the alternative is just eliminating postseason play for those schools, I'm not sure they'd appreciate that either.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Big Ten to Start Paying More for Scholarships?

Not much of interest shuck out of the Big Ten meetings this week, besides from a possible expansion to nine games in 2017 that everyone already anticipated. But there was this little tidbit this afternoon:
An athletic scholarship pays for tuition, fees, room and board and books. But it doesn't cover such items as transportation, clothing and other living expenses -- the so-called full cost of attendance. Studies have suggested that there's a gap of about $3,000 per player between the scholarship allotment and the cost of attendance.  
There have been calls to close that gap. In 2003, former NCAA president Myles Brand publicly favored a proposal to use men's basketball tournament funds to give athletes more pay. Current NCAA boss Mark Emmert has come out in support of the same idea and brought the issue up at the NCAA's April board meeting. 
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said his league talked about such a model this week in Chicago.  
"Forty years ago, you had a scholarship plus $15 a month laundry money," Delany said. "Today, you have the same scholarship, but not with the $15 laundry money.  
"How do we get back more toward the collegiate model and a regulatory system that is based more on student-athlete welfare than it is on a level playing field, where everything is about a cost issue and whether or not everybody can afford to do everything everybody else can do?"
Two thoughts on this: first, this shouldn't hurt any Big Ten athletic departments all that badly. Assuming there are around 300 scholarship athletes total in each department, an extra $3000 per student comes out to less than a million dollars per sports department. With the unexpected success of the Big Ten Network and the recession-impervious sports contracts being doled out by television networks, $900,000 is peanuts.

Second, this is a warning to every mid-major football program in the FBS. You want a free market. A real free market? You want full competition? These teams can't break even with support from their universities and sometimes direct payments from the state fisc. An extra million dollars to athletes would be impossible at Eastern Michigan or Ball State; even Boise State will have a tough time of it. And that extra $3,000 per year could mean the difference between Indiana or Minnesota and, say, Central Michigan to the marginal recruits that turn down the Big Ten to become MAC superstars.

The New ESPN Tell-All Book Is the Most Interesting Thing Ever

There's an office complex in Bristol, Connecticut. Some of the people in the office don't like each other. Some of them like each other a lot. In fact, they've even had intercourse of all varieties. Some of them drink too much during their off hours, or do drugs, or use profanity. Many of them are jerks.

But enough about CIGNA Insurance. You have no doubt heard about the soon-to-be-released ESPN oral history. At 700 pages, you will no doubt learn more about Charlie Steiner and Bob Ley than you ever cared to learn, along with other more ratings-friendly characters. Some of this is interesting if only because you've heard of some of these people, and gossip is always a little bit fun (that's why the E! Network exists, after all). Who doesn't enjoy learning who is screwing whom, especially if the screwer and screwee are both recognizable and not supposed to be engaged in said screwing.

But is it interesting enough to sustain a 700-page oral history? I imagine there are two target audiences. First are other sports journalists, who have actually met most of the people mentioned in the book (even the back-office, no-name desk workers that will no doubt play the lead characters in most of the really salacious stories). Targeting a book to journalists is good business; at the very least, they'll provide free advertising since they're pride will be pricked. Most of them are human just like us, and if someone wrote a 700-page history of me or people I know, I'd sure as hell talk about how fascinating the whole thing is. That doesn't mean other people should believe me though.

The second target audience are the self-anointed watchers of the watchdog, such as A.J. "What Is Sourcing?" Daulerio. The essence of Deadspin has evolved over the years, from wackiness-tinged-with-common-man-honesty to Crusader for the Fans. Part of that crusade--maybe the holy grail of the crusade--is to point out the many foibles of the sports media, with an occasionally expansive definition of what counts as "media." The charitable reading is that doing this draws readers; the uncharitable reading is that Daulerio is a genuinely objectionable human being who knows his organization will never really be powerful or interesting enough to draw the same type of attention upon him and his coworkers. You can take your pick.

ESPN is a necessary evil in my world; a massive media conglomerate that nonetheless provides just about every sport imaginable, from cricket to Aussie Football. They employ personalities that range from painfully annoying to genuinely insightful, with every spot on the spectrum in between. They are neither friend nor enemy. If ESPN did not broadcast sports events, sometimes other networks would, and sometimes they wouldn't. When they are not showing actual events, they fill their time with the sort of inane chatter that is ubiquitous on both AM radio and on the internet. If ESPN didn't exist, someone else would invent it, and it would still probably suck because 90% of everything does. If the hosts want to give one another chlamydia during their free hours, I don't see where that's any more worthy of Caro-sized tomes than your neighbors doing the same. And the endless fascination by Deadspin-types says infinitely more about them than it does about anyone who works for ESPN.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Season Obituaries: Indiana

Year Three of the Official Crean Rebuilding Project has now concluded, and while there has been definite improvement since 2008-09, how could there not be? The Hoosiers team three seasons ago was one perhaps the worst in the Big Ten over the past decade, winning one conference game and only five games total during the year. That's not on Crean; no coach that ever lived could have made that Indiana team competitive in the wake of the Sampson implosion. Much like Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Crean took over a program that was elite only in heritage, and the stunning drop-off in year one should not be held against him.

And it's not as though there have been no green shoots since then. The 2009 recruiting class was an accomplishment considering how bad Indiana was; the 2011 class looks even more promising; the 2013 class is downright Calipari-like in its potential. The 2008 team would not have been within ten points of the 2011 versions of Michigan or Illinois, teams Indiana defeated this season. And there were deceptively competitive games along the way, including a contest against Final Four-bound Kentucky that was much closer than the score might indicate.

Still, what has been the crowning moment in Indiana basketball during the Crean era? A win over a disappointing 2011 Illinois team at home (an Illinois team that won by 30+ later in the season in Champaign)? A 20 point victory over Michigan before the Wolverines began their climb to respectability? The biggest headlines have come from recruiting, not on the court, and while the results in April have been encouraging, they haven't meant anything in February, much less March.

I made an unfavorable comparison to Iowa in the previous obituary, but Indiana has several things going for them the Hawkeyes never will. For one thing, they are Indiana; those five national championships aren't getting taken down from the rafters any time soon. Recruits are still attracted to the Crimson and Cream, and fans have shown a remarkable patience during the rebuilding (scenes like the Orange Krush takeover of Carver-Hawkeye Arena are unfathomable at Assembly Hall).

The time for moral victories is over, however. The 2011 recruiting class were freshmen in high school last time Indiana made the tournament; the 2013 class was in junior high. After a while, kids forget that being Indiana means something beyond Big Ten also-ran. Heckling a batter who gets two strikes is silly, because the at-bat isn't over. Crean is down in the count; he still has pitches coming, but he doesn't have any left to take. That's a lot of pressure for a coach who, while not without returning talent, is hoping for young players to make an impression in a notoriously physical conference.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Season Obituaries: Iowa

The Hawkeyes were expected to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this season, and they were. The least interesting articles are the ones that explain the process by which something we expect to happen actually happens. In some areas, this is a tremendous shame. For example, researchers sometimes spend years researching something only to find out that they cannot disprove the null hypothesis, or that their results are not statistically significant. That might be valuable information, but journals prefer articles (presumably because readers prefer reading articles) where something is discovered, rather than the absence of something. It also discourages work that tests long-held truths; the majority of these articles might simply verify the truths (and thus will be uninteresting), but a few would result in those accepted truths being questioned. Of course, some of those articles will themselves be wrong, but that's not the point; how many false things do we now believe are true go unquestioned for lack of professional incentive?

OK, I'm stalling, but my point isn't that this Iowa team was uninteresting because it played to expectations. On the contrary, this Iowa team was the most interesting Hawkeye squad in the past few years. One reason for this is that they are no longer playing at a sub-Wisconsin pace. Whatever your stance on slow basketball games, they are only fun to watch when teams are good and every possession takes on more importance. Good fast games are fun. Bad fast games are fun just because they are so skattered. Good slow games are fun because every turn down the court matters more. Bad, slow games are painful, and Iowa under Lickliter was painful, not just bad.

That's not just an aesthetic judgment. Top prospects might go to play for a slow coach (the stories of Bo Ryan's lack of recruiting ability are vastly oversold), and they might go play for a bad team, but they won't play for a slow, bad team. Turning around the air-out-of-the-ball culture at Carver-Hawkeye was goal number one for Fran McCaffery, and he was unquestionably successful; Iowa wasn't exactly VMI, but they weren't just "bad Wisconsin" either.

That change will pay off down the road, and there are already some signs that Iowa's recruiting for future years is beginning to improve. But there were benefits in 2011 also. For one thing, fans started showing up to games, and there were no repeats of the 2010 embarassment when Illinois fans took over Carver-Hawkeye for an evening. McCaffery also managed something in his first season that still hasn't happened under three rebuilding seasons in Bloomington--a major win over a ranked conference opponent (I know Indiana beat Illinois last season; I'm not counting Illinois as a top-25 team, even if they happened to be ranked #25 at the time). A win over Purdue is worth fifty promises of future progress; it is a definite, unquestionable mark of progress at a program that has seemingly been in decline since their tournament loss to a 14 seed. That the win came on senior day for a group that has enjoyed preciously little success makes the win a bit nicer still.

That win wasn't the end of the rebuilding project; Iowa is still expected to be in the bottom half, and probably the bottom quarter, of the Big Ten next season. It probably wasn't even the beginning of the end. But it may have been the end of the beginning, and for as little as that sounds like it is worth, there are programs around the country--and programs in the conference--that have been searching in vain for the end of the beginning for years now. Small accomplishments are still accomplishments, and no accomplishment should be taken for granted.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Season Obituaries: Michigan

In many ways, an obituary feels inappropriate for the 2011 Michigan team. For one thing, this Michigan team isn't "dead" in the same way that 2011 Ohio State or Illinois or Minnesota are now dead. Those teams will look quite different from the versions that took the court this past season, having been ravished by graduation and draft departures. Michigan loses Darius Morris, and while I don't mean to downplay that absence, Morris was more a cog in the Wolverine engine than the engine itself, and Michigan should continue to improve. In all other respects, this team will look exactly the same, play the same style of ball, and all the rest.

There's also a not-crazy claim that Michigan had the most successful season in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Purdue were national title contenders that failed to make it out of the Sweet 16 round (or, in the case of Purdue, the Round of 32). Wisconsin and Illinois plateaued at about their normal expected finishing points. Michigan State and Minnesota disappointed. Iowa and Indiana were basement-dwellers. Penn State was a surprising feel-good story at the close of the season but managed no better than competitive first-round loss to Temple. Northwestern failed to make the tournament again, though they did at least make it into overtime of their NIT Elite Eight game.

But Michigan's season feels more satisfying somehow. Expected to "compete" with Iowa and Indiana for the bottom spot in the conference, they looked headed that way even as late as seven games into conference play. By the end of the season, both expectations and attitudes had turned. From also-ran to threat, Michigan not only made the NCAA tournament (a surprise itself), but made it as a comfortable 8 seed and ran 9 seed Tennessee out of the building. They then took Duke to the final buzzer, just as they had taken Kansas to the (overtime) buzzer at the front end of their turnaround. Sure, the season ended in the same way as all the other Big Ten teams--no championshp--but I get the feeling Michigan fans felt less bad about that than most other fanbases would have.

Of course, the tempting move is to compare the expectations for the upcoming season with the expectations for 2010, when Michigan opened as a top 15 team and failed to make any postseason. But this is unfair in two respects. First, this is an obituary, not a preview, and Michigan fans should be allowed at least half an offseason to bask in the reflected glow of their team's unexpected achievements. 

Even apart from that, however, drawing a simple 2010 = 2012 analogy is both lazy and unfair. Many of these players weren't on the team in 2010, most of those who were on the team weren't responsible for the decline, and the few that helped contribute to the decline--like Stu Douglass and Zack Novak--have developed tremendously. The 2012 Wolverines might be the same as the 2011 Wolverines, but that is where the chain of similarity ends, even if all three teams will share the word Michigan on their jerseys.

That's not to say that success next season is assured. All it means is that the expectation of future success makes current success, even when limited to one thrashing of Tennessee and a .500 conference record, all the sweeter. We bake future anticipation into the cake, which is why Michigan fans can be so giddy about a team that basically performed as well as Illinois, while Illinois fans were apoplectic. If Michigan should misstep, 2011 will still be remembered fondly, despite the failure to follow through. Fan psychology is peculiar that way, but if it weren't, I imagine we'd all drive ourselves insane from the sheer arithmetic of a league where only one out of 320 teams can win the championship. It's the little triumphs that keep us going.