Friday, July 30, 2010

shameless promotion (2.0), part v

Editor's Note: In the continuing effort of this blog to promote its primary author, here is his latest column. Feel free to poke holes in it either here or on twitter. Thanks in advance.
Broken finger a reminder of little things

Here’s the problem: all the little things.

That sentence isn’t correct. You’re going to have to live with it. Sorry.

I’m having to live with such things since my orthopedic doctors taped together the index and middle fingers on my left hand, after x-rays showed the latter was broken. It makes typing simple sentences (like this one) laborious and typing them correctly even tougher.

In fact, here’s what that last sentence looked like before I corrected it: “iT MKEES tpnf swmple sentncs 9like this one) laborioua an typin thm corrrectl even toughr.”

To be honest, I foresaw this even as the (very apologetic) nurses were wrapping it the first time.

Me: “It’s going to be kind of hard to work like this.”

Doctor (unmoved): “If you do too much with it, we’ll do surgery and put a pin it.”

And that, apparently, was that. My wife — the medical professional in our house — agreed with his assessment, and no third opinion was necessary (or valid, it seems).

(Note: fortunately, due to changes in insurance and circumstance, these aren’t the same docs who were around when I broke my leg a few years ago. Because, um, that would be awkward.)

Here’s the thing: a finger doesn’t seem like much, when it’s healthy. It’s like a placeholder, really: not flashy and doesn’t do much unless you really need it.

Only when you really need it, and it’s hurt … well, you’re in trouble. Walking dogs, carrying groceries, typing your column: all of it becomes difficult, painful and poorly spelled when one of your digits isn’t functioning properly.

(Another note: someone I know recently tattooed a cartoon-ish looking mustache on her finger, just for the comedy of it. If this finger doesn’t heal properly I think I might go that route. Stay tuned.)

(Final note: Can you tell I’m deliberately avoiding telling the story of how I hurt the finger in the first place?)

And so, work goes on, even a digit down. I’m plugging away at a snail’s pace, sort of like the narrator in Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway” (so far, my finger hasn’t possessed me, at least no as far as I can tell). The mail continues to run on time, and politics continue to fail us just like always.

Like I said, it’s the little things that make the difference.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

family conversations, 2010 version, part 2

Welcome back to "Family Conversations," a running series in which my cousin's husband (cousin-in-law?) Jamie — an avowed Auburn fan — and I trade emails about things related to Auburn, 'Bama and SEC football in general. We started the ball rolling last week; we're not claiming to be experts, just two guys who follow their teams way too closely. As always, feel free to comment, or visit my twitter and argue there.

will: You've had a year to see Gus Malzahn on a week-in, week-out basis. Thoughts? And don't hold back.
Jamie: I have seen enough of Gus Malzahn to be damn glad he's coaching my team. I love the balance (212ypg rushing 219ypg passing) and I love the rhythm of the offense. I found myself yelling things such as "Spot the ball", "Faster, Faster, Faster" "Snap it, Snap it". I am a believer pure and simple. He had one year to take the worst offense this side of 1998 and become semi-explosive. However Gus' first year at AU did not come without mistakes. When a NASCAR driver makes a run at the leader and doesn't quite make the pass, he has to back off and cool the tires down to go for another run. Sometimes I feel like Gus could have cooled his tires a bit instead of going Cole Trickle on every turn. Field position is golden. Don't chance it by running slow developing bootlegs against a fast, blitzing defense (Chris Todd meet Rolondo McClain).

Bottom line though is the guy knows offensive football. I am very excited to see what he can do having yet another running threat touching the ball every play. If Cam can keep defenses honest with his arm, this could be a might potent offense.

will: Give me three non-Auburn/Bama games you'd like to see this season. Sky's the limit.
Jamie: (1) West Virginia @ LSU - Not so much for the football, but getting these two fan bases together will surely produce some of the most creative ways to tell someone to go F*** themselves. I'd say keep the women and children at home but who am I kidding? I have been cursed by an elderly lady and flipped off by a 10 year old all in a 10 min walk to Tiger Stadium. This will be BY FAR the biggest collaboration of scum to ever meet in one place. The language used in this 2 mile radius would make George Carlin blush.
(2) Texas @ Texas Tech - The first real game for Tommy Tuberville at Tech. Kinda like having an ex girlfriend. You like the new girl you have been dating therefore, you want the best for your ex. If you were still single and you saw your ex dating someone else, you might be a little jealous. At this point, I wish the best for my ex, but I don't want my ex to get married before me. (Married - Ring, get it?)
(3) Ga Tech vs anyone - because I friggin love ($ to Ron Burgandy) watching that dad gum offense.

will: What are your thought on Agent Armageddon? Do we have a chance?
Jamie: Nick Saban is dead on here. Why does the agent not get punished? Pull his liscense for a year with no residual income from his current clients. Someone should probably write a memo statement.

Jamie: Rank the SEC schools in terms of easiest places to have a winning program.
will: This is kind of a cheap answer, but it's typically "easier" — in terms of visibility, etc — to win at a state school (Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia). Some Auburn folks don't believe me, but in the little I've traveled out of state, most folks have no idea where Auburn even is. For Auburn alums who live in such places, it's like a really cool secret. Which is fine and all, but it makes it harder to recruit. So the state schools are "easier," with Mississippi and South Carolina among the least of that group.
(Note: Why South Carolina can't win is one of the great mysteries of all-time to me. They meet the criteria of a state school, have a good stadium that's always full and a rabid alumni base willing to spend money. And yet they're 8-5 even in their best years. You figure it out.)
Auburn and Mississippi State are slightly behind that curve — this is a matter of percentage points, obviously — with Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the rear (and only because of the natural obstacles — basketball and academics — in their way).

Jamie: What is the general feeling of Nick Saban's legacy at Alabama? Rented winner or beloved leader?
will: This is an interesting question because, in a way, it speaks to our society as a whole.
A brief history: One of the main reasons Bill Curry fled Tuscaloosa in 1989 — and he did flee; he wasn't "fired" as is popularly remembered (a good look at his tenure came out recently on — was the pressure that came about because he wasn't "an Alabama man." It's a common sentiment: I remember after Terry Bowden's ouster at Auburn, he gave an interview in which he was asked what it meant that he was "never an Auburn man." And he shrugged. "I don't know."
I'm saying this because I'm not sure it matters anymore. Coaches switch sides so often that fans are almost numb to it; in 2004, when Tommy Tuberville was celebrating a 13-0 season with the Auburn Family, nobody said, "Wait — he's from Arkansas! He's not a REAL Auburn man!"
The same, I think, is true for Nick Saban. Do I think he's "loyal" to Alabama? He seems to genuinely like it here; he likes the kids he's coaching; his wife and daughters seem happy; he certainly enjoys his paycheck. But there's a different kind of loyalty between that and what coach Bryant felt — Bryant believed he owed something to his bosses, not the other way around.
As an Alabama fan, I love him because I love watching his teams play football, because his mentality mirrors mine as a fan ... and because our program wins and wins with class (it's dangerous territory here, but the off-field incidents have virtually disappeared since Jimmy Johns' infamous '08 crack arrest). Would it be better if he were "an Alabama man?" I guess. But there's really no such thing anymore.

As for my own follow-ups ..
• 2004 Auburn or 2009 Alabama? And be as big a homer as you want.
• Turning the tables, how will Auburn fans remember Tommy Tuberville? And, looking back, would you rather have the decade Tuberville had at Auburn (one great year, mostly ordinary) or Mark Richt's UGA decade (a string of 10-win seasons, but never quite got over the hump)?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tuesday 'tube: 2009, just for old time's sake

While I was gone from the blog, someone on youtube completed game highlights of pretty much every significant moment from 2009. So, then one last look back before practice starts for the new season.

And with that, I'll have to put a lid on 2009. Roll Tide, everybody.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Monday links: sweltering

Normally, I try to rationalize the heat. Aw, it's not that hot ... really, it's just what you're used to, doesn't bother me ... once you get out in it, it ain't so bad.
Well, there's been no reasoning with the heat the past few days. Friday I came home and my dogs swore at me for making them stay outside in it; I guess I should just be happy they didn't melt into the earth like chocolate bars.

So, since the weather outside makes you glad to have a working A/C inside, here's a smattering of links to help you resist any urge to do anything.

— Like me, Dr. Saturday searched high and low for two teams that could dethrone 'Bama and Florida in 2010. Like me, he failed. Which probably means we're headed for an SECCG matchup of South Carolina and Arkansas, or something bizarre like that.
— Follow-ups from the agent craze sweeping the nation: Michael Casagrande has a story about a sports agent trying to clean things up, Jerry Maguire style. Of course, we all remember what happened there.

Mike also posted some very useful links on the same topic at his personal blog, as well.
— Had anyone else at Media Days drawn the "agents as pimps" comparison, it's likely only a small ripple would've occurred. But, because Nick Saban did it, he's caught some heat from the national column sect. Which, naturally, has drawn the ire of some of our friendly neighborhood bloggers.
This, by the way, is the toughest part of dealing with the press on a national level — they're not spending time around the team everyday (like the local beat writers) and they're not spending thousands of hours scanning blogs and message boards (like the fans). So they read something off the wire and react. Sometimes this is OK; in this case, they got it way wrong.
— Need to see a slideshow of 15 games that will define several programs this fall? Of course you do.
— A bit of history: Tidesports posts the first in its "Bryant to Saban" series with a look at Ray Perkins (hey, we did that a while back!); and this post tells of Legion Field and its historic significance, particularly since it's the reason we now have "The Iron Bowl."

— Finally, apropos of nothing, Joe Posnanski offered a great take on the recent Mitch Albom flap. Worth the read if you care even one iota.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

SEC Media Days: that's a wrap, so ...

As blogged here most of this week, the real attraction of Media Days is that it means football season is starting soon (fall camp opens next week). So I can post videos like this ...

... and you can say, "Holy [expletive]! Football's about to start!"

With that in mind, here's a look at Media Days. First off, it's worth noting that the best, most definitive look at Media Days came from my old college friend Dennis Pillion, sitting with Orson Swindle from EDSBS. Observe:
Top five moments from SEC Media Days 2010

— Unfortunately, the primary talk of the week revolved around off-the-field issues: agents, barroom brawls and so forth. Everyone agrees there's a problem; nobody seems to know how to handle it (well, except for Grambling's coach). In what was undoubtedly the only interesting thing he said all week, Gene Chizik offered a somewhat different take on the matter:
“A lot of this has got to go back on the young guy. I mean, he’s got to have an allegiance to his school, he’s got to have an allegiance to his teammates, he’s got to have an allegiance to his football team and his coaches and his university.”

A fair point. It doesn't seem, based on all empirical evidence, that Marcell Dareus would ever be confused with a Phi Beta Kappa. But for him (and all these other guys) to say he had no idea anything untoward might be going on? What, is he autistic? Come on.
While we're here, the RBR crowd has dissected this matter about as well as anyone since it began — here's their latest. And the other place to turn for solid info is Gentry — he answers most every question here. And I can't answer anything better than they have, so let's move on.
— Because the media covering the SEC rarely thinks creatively, the overwhelming picks from Media Days were (naturally) Alabama and Florida. I'll say again what I told Jamie in Wednesday's post: Alabama and Florida aren't invincible and both have visible flaws ... I just can't decide who's going to beat them. For a whole season, I mean.
— The natural challenger to Florida in the East should be Carolina, right? Um, right? Well, after examining their schedule, here's what's clear: they must beat Georgia in Columbia in Week 2. If they don't do that, they're pretty much out. And they have to split their two-week stretch vs. Auburn and 'Bama. If they can do those things ... they have a chance — repeat, just a chance — to play for the East in Gainesville in November.
(Georgia's schedule, on the other hand, sets up much better: survive the early three-week stretch of @Carolina, vs. Arkansas & @State unscathed or with 1 loss, and it's likely they're playing Florida for the division. Again. I know, boring.)
— Two other fun coach-related links: Dan Mullen and Nick Saban traded barbs about the spread (or something); and TSK examines Les Miles' strange phrasing.
That did not go beyond my scrutiny. ... I can promise you that those situtations, some of those situations I'd never run into in coaching. Some of those situations I was, even though prepared for, had not envisioned the time constraints.

If this sounds familiar, this is why.

Well-played, sir.
— Finally, I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't share this: Dr. Saturday compares Julio Jones to AJ Green, just for fun. This gives me an excuse to do this:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

shameless promotion (2.0), part iv

Editor's Note: As part of my continuing effort to promote my own career as an opinion-crafter and wordsmith, here's this week's column from the St. Clair Times. As today is my fourth wedding anniversary, this is all you're getting from me today. Holla.
Thirst for sport sends us to boring press conferences

Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton
Talking in our beds for a week
The newspeople said
"Say, what're you doing in bed?"
I said, "We're only trying to get us some peace"

The summer always drags on for the Southern sports fan.

It’s a curious phenomenon, our activity from January until September. Football season ends and we all start talking about more football (when you really think about it, much more time is spent discussing and preparing for football than is spent playing it).

We do have our distractions: basketball, baseball, golf, NASCAR, even (if you’re into it) the Olympics or World Cup soccer. But really, all we’re after is more football.
Which, of course, is why Media Days is always big news. The fact that it’s happening — and it IS happening, as we speak, at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover — means football is about to start.

It’s exciting for that reason. And only that reason, really.

Because here’s the thing nobody ever really talks about with Media Days: for the most part, it’s a collection of bland interviews conducted by bored writers and TV personalities with bored athletes and coaches.

And so, with that in mind, I offer you a handful of mundane predictions for things that will absolutely happen (and may have already happened by the time you read this) at SEC Media Days.

Houston Nutt will talk like a television evangelist. Houston Dale is easily my favorite SEC coach, and only because he talks like someone who went to the Jimmy Swaggart School of Interviewing. If only he could be involved in a high-profile scandal; he’d weep on-air like the cast of “Beaches.”

More writers will be interested in Vanderbilt than ever before. Most years Vandy is covered with the vigor of a cat taking a swim; this time, around, the ‘Dores’ new coach (whatever his name is) will be a hot commodity.

(Note: It has long been a dream of mine to float my dad’s name for any coaching vacancy, just to see if it might take off on the Web, Delonte West-style. Now that Dad’s openly talking about retirement, we could make it work. Hey, what about that Bruce Heath at USDA? He’s a sleeper!)

Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Derek Dooley will all be nice and polite to the press for the entire time they’re there. It will be the final time you’ll see this until next year’s Media Days.

At least one school’s representative will wear a suit that appears to have come from a homeless person’s wardrobe.

Les Miles will appear insane and disheveled. Clay Travis will ask him a dumb question that flabbergasts everyone.

My wife will order me to stop watching. “It’s our anniversary, you doofus.”

Oh well.

* "The Ballad of John and Yoko," 1969

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

family conversations, 2010 version, part 1

With SEC Media Days looming, it seems like the perfect time to break out my much-beloved time-honored stopgap: "Family Conversations," or me trading emails with my cousin's husband (cousin-in-law?) Jamie (whose family blog you can find here). Jamie, you'll discern quickly, is an Auburn devotee, though he falls on the "sane, mature" side of fandom (much better than some others). We'll try to update this thread regularly. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section, or argue with me directly by finding me on twitter.

Jamie: Once again God's greatest worldly gift is closing in. Getting down to business:

The SEC is not where it once was. I believe there is a gap between Bama and Florida. Then a world of difference between the next best team in the conference, which would probably go to LSU, which is scary. Of the typical "top 6" in the sec, only 3 deserve top 25 consideration. Arky is everyone's flavor of the month so they will be ranked I imagine. Speaking of Arky, I am not sure yet if I am a believer. They have what it takes offensively but can they get good enough on D? I think they could grab 8-4 with some luck.

In the West I have this:
1) Alabama 11-1 Losing McClain and Arenas will be worth one loss somewhere
2) Auburn 9-3 Very favorable home schedule. If some teams fail to meet expectation it may be better. If new QB doesn't play to expetation, could be worse.
3) Arkansas 8-4 Getting better. If defense is there could easily finish 2nd.
4) LSU 7-5 In 2011 yet another team will be asking the question "Why again did we hire Miles?"
5) Miss St 6-6 Bowling doggies
6) Ole Miss 5-7 McClusterlessed

East: (many out on a limbs here)
Florida 10-2 Good enough to get to Atl but lost alot especially in defense
S Carolina 9-3 Because everyone else in the league is worse
Kentucky 8-4 See above
Georgia 6-6 In my mind UGA is finished. Way too much off the field issues to be focused on football. Seems to me the stunts Richt pulled in 2007 to get his players motivated caused some sort of lack of dicipline that he has not been able to regain.
Tenn 5-7 That program is in a world of hurt currently
Vandy 1-11 ..........................
Bama rolls to another SEC championship and likely another BCS appearance. Offense only gets better and defense will still be very good
will: Count me among the people who aren't quite ready for 2010 to start just yet. I love football (and SEC football the most), but last season was so special, and so many things went right ... I mean, whatever happens this time around can't hope to match it, right?
As for the standings, the "gap" in the SEC is a tad overrated. Florida and Alabama could both be had; it's not too much of a stretch to say someone will beat them this fall. The problem is finding out who can overtake them — for every contender, there's at least one discernable flaw you can't get over.
My standings:
1. Florida. I can't figure who's beating them.
2. Georgia. Yes, the Richt regime is full of cracks. But they still have athletes at every position, and if they upgrade at all on defense ... eh, you're right. They'll probably keep sliding.
3. South Carolina. One caveat: is it possible this is the year of Carolina? I mean, they just won the first national championship for the school in ... like, ever. That's not a positive omen?
4. Tennessee. I'd feel bad for them, but I just don't have it in me.
5. Kentucky. Randall Cobb & Derrick Locke are two of my favorite players in the SEC. Glad they're off our schedule.
6. Vandy. Whatever.
1. Alabama. Remains to be seen what will come of this Dareus mess. Will get better as the year goes on, but may lose early either at Arkansas or South Carolina.
2. Auburn. There was something deeper than pure depth problems on defense last year. Fundamentally, Auburn was bad on defense — out of position frequently and a poor tackling team. More curious considering a relatively successful defensive coach runs the show. Of course ...
3. Arkansas. If they can stop anybody ... I mean, do I even need to say it?
4. LSU. An outstanding post about the '09 Bengal Tigers today at Dr. Saturday. They're a mess. I think Les Miles' destiny is to be the anti-Nick Saban. Nobody can do less with more.
5. 6. Mississippi State/Ole Miss. Whatever twice over.

Jamie: Individual players to watch.

Tim Tebow has to be considered a heisman candi.....wait a minute.

Randall Cobb will have the ball in his hands enough at UK to become a very well known name this year.

Mark Richardson, or Trent Ingram...that dude is a freak whoever his name is.

Darvin Adams was a forgotten soul last year. Didn't make any post season All-SEC team. If he has another year like that he should finish top 5 for SEC offensive player of the year (60 rec. 997 yds 10 tds) More than AJ Green and Julio Jones in all 3 categories. Before the "system" argument comes, Chris Todd attempted 3 more passes than G Mcelroy on 2009 and 6 less than Joe Cox.

Marcel Darius is the Best DL in the League. Maybe the best defensive player period. Stud.
(Note: This, obviously, came before we started hearing about these agent dealings.)
will: You're not going to even bring up Cam Newton's potential impact at Auburn? Fine, I'll do it.

My other favorite player coming back (potentially) is Dont'a Hightower, a physical freak who can play anywhere on the field. Assuming he can come back and play full-speed and with great confidence off the injury, he'll be all-SEC by the end of the year.

And no one's going to mention AJ Green? Or Julio?

Jamie: Follow up Points:
What teams, if any, would you as commissioner like to see added to the league?
will: For history purposes, the obvious answer is Georgia Tech. But it's not clear how much this would mean to the conference in revenue: Tech plays in a 50,000-seat building that rarely sells out (think Vandy, only slightly better). Miami is very similar; curiously, the football program cultivated a thuggish image almost completely inconsistent with the school's academic reputation. But, what the hell? Let's invite Tech, Miami, FSU and take the massive payout to add Memphis! We'll have more scandals than the Dallas Cowboys.

Jamie: Who is the biggest name coach that you could see realistically coaching at Vandy?
will: I'm tempted to say Mike Leach. Really. He's just off the wall enough to motivate Vandy's unique fan base and would make the most of the kids he recruits. Plus, his system is just quirky enough to pull off one or two "shocking" upsets" per year? On the other hand, Vandy's administration is a tad heavy-handed (remember: no athletic department there, have to answer to the president directly). That may not work for a free spirit like Leach.
Just for fun, wouldn't you like to see someone like Tommy Bowden land there? Maybe it'll never happen, but it's fun to dream, right?

My follow-ups:
• You've had a year to see Gus Malzahn on a week-in, week-out basis. Thoughts? And don't hold back.
• Give me three non-Auburn/Bama games you'd like to see this season. Sky's the limit.
• What are your thought on Agent Armageddon? Do we have a chance?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tuesday 'tube: (warning: actual football)

Can't take credit for these — they come from the blog of Michael Casagrande of The Decatur Daily: Nick Saban talking defense.

Hope you enjoyed those as much as I did. See you tomorrow. Roll Tide.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monday links: on the precipice

With Media Days beginning Wednesday in Hoover, here's a smattering of weekend links to prepare you.
(Worth noting: SEC Media Days is — are? — an appallingly boring event that receives the attention it does only because we're all soooo desperate for football. We're so thirsty for it, in fact, we ignore the fact that Media Days is little more than the same group of writers asking the same players and coaches the same questions they ask every other day. It's fun for, literally, about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, it lasts 3 days.)
— The biggest "duh" column of the weekend: Jon Solomon pointing out the SEC's status as a college football dynasty. As important: the money that is flowing with that kind of success. This goes back to what we wrote the other day: it's in everybody's best interest for everybody else to do well.
— Naturally, the team on most prominent display will be Alabama, the defending champs.
Consider the misguided predictions by those who cover the event. Since 1992, the media have picked the overall SEC champion right only four times.
But teams can go few places to match the exposure a visit to Hoover provides. Especially if you’re coming off a BCS championship and boast a Heisman Trophy running back. Especially if you’re Alabama.

— Speaking of 'Bama, I missed last week's biggest story: the University may soon extend the contract of AD Mal Moore. Interestingly, I caught one of FSN's "College Flash Classics" recently, LSU's monumental upset of defending national champ Alabama in 1993. Coordinating the offense that day: Mal Moore, who was summarily fired for being dull and unimaginative. Times have changed, indeed.
— Third on the list of "Best SEC Games in 2010" ... Auburn at 'Bama. If you think this is an excuse to show this video, you're absolutely right.

— Dr. Saturday wrapped up ACC Week by picking Va. Tech to win it ... and Duke to miss a bowl game. Damn it all.
— Finally, Ole Miss is continuing its embarrassing search to replace Col. Reb, narrowing the list to 5 hysterical mascots. Sadly, none is Giant Douche, Turd Sandwich or Admiral Ackbar.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

shameless promotion (2.0), part iii

Welcome back to another edition of me shamelessly promoting my own newspaper career with a hastily written column about Sumatanga. Please to enjoy.

Of hiking, proper shoes and life's big questions

It was about halfway up the hike, I realized one of the girls in our group wasn’t wearing shoes, instead trekking up the side of this hill in a pair of thin sandals.

“Um, dear,” I stuttered. “Did you put any thought into your footwear before we left the lodge?”

Climbing from Camp Sumatanga up the side of Chandler Mountain in thin sandals seems like somehthing people do as part of some sadistic fraternity hazing or something. Even in good shoes, it’s no cakewalk; the best of us have nearly fallen off a dozen times or so, and none of us ever dreamed of climbing in sandals.

“No, I guess I forgot to change my shoes,” she said. “I guess I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t so sure. The week spent at Sumatanga — where my wife’s spent one week per summer since her teen years, and I have been since 2007 — is one of the more rewarding experiences a childless 29-year-old can have. Bright, frustrating, talented, moody, inspiring, puzzling: pick an adjective and it could describe the campers to the letter.

More advanced in years, of course, I’m supposed to be one of the “adults” in the group, one of those who helps shed some light for the “youths” there.

Few lessons are as poignant as the hike up the mountain. Prepare yourself accordingly (water, a First Aid kit, a walkie-talkie and, yes, shoes, are important); take great care with each step (or you’ll fall); resist the urge to stop until you’ve reached a flat spot (or you’ll fall again); make sure you keep someone close to you (or several someones) so they’ll know if you need help.

And one more thing.

“So is it, like, worth it, once we get to the top?”

The eternal question, isn’t it? Whether it’s school or choir rehearsal or a long drive to a scenic destination or anything else? Will it be, like, worth it, once we make it there?

The easy answer is “of course.” Make that hike up Chandler Mountain and you’ll see most of St. Clair County and several other counties. Do it the night of July 4, and the fireworks from all over will be something truly special. If Heaven’s anything like that, we’re in for a real treat.

I haven’t stopped thinking about that question, really, not even a week later. It’s one of the reasons Camp Sumatanga and places like it remain truly special: once you make it there, it’s totally worth it.

And the little girl in the sandals? She made it just fine, up and down, with nothing but a pair of dirty feet.

Shows how much I know.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tuesday 'tube: pictures of you

Sorry about the lack of links for today: the middle finger on my left hand is currently "all stove up" and is affecting my ability to blog, do my regular job and do most anything. As penance, here's the video that's been circulating around the Web this week: ESPN's Images of the Decade that was in College Football.

See you tomorrow. I hope. Roll Tide.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

vacation post: requiem for Shula

At the time Nick Saban was hired, I couldn't help but think about Mike Shula.

I know, I know. That makes no sense whatsoever. Alabama, at the time, was mired in the morass that had been the decade of the 2000s. Saban was the fifth coach we had hired since the decade turned, and emotions were running high, either because a) Alabama fans were positively ga-ga over the guy or b) everybody else was fuming.

So it made very little sense to think about Mike Shula, the guy we'd just fired. Still, I couldn't help but think about him.

I swear I wrote some version of the following at the time (although I've looked and can't find the exact wording): "When Nick Saban turns Alabama around and we start winning at a high level — and rest assured, this man is going to win and win big — I hope Alabama fans won't forget the contributions made by Mike Shula, a guy who took a job nobody else wanted in 2003, made the best with what he had and never stopped being a positive symbol for the university and the program."

Of course, as I'm sure you're aware, it's all happening. After three seasons under the Saban regime, Alabama is the defending national champs — you may recall reading something about this earlier — and the consensus preseason No. 1 going into 2010 (a terrifying notion I'd really rather ignore at the moment).
Furthermore, most people have completely forgotten about MIke Shula. Which is really a shame.

Anyway, since I thought of this while I was cutting the grass today, and since it's a relatively slow news week; and, more importantly, since I'll be in radio silence for the next week, I figured I'd give you my extended thoughts on Shula. Or, as I termed him not long after his departure, The Rebound Guy.

Every woman out there knows about The Rebound Guy. They've just come out of an emotional breakup with someone who was probably terrible for them but they shared strong feelings for them (in Alabama's case, Dennis Franchione burned us and then Mike Price used up our good feelings and split) ... and then The Rebound Guy comes along. And he's a nice guy who says nice things. Makes her feel better about herself. Listens to all her gripes about how she feels about the ex, never complains when she ditches him to go hang out with her girlfriends, calls to see how she's doing, that kind of thing.
Of course, no one ever settles down with The Rebound Guy. Eventually that ends, she finds the love of her life and The Rebound Guy's there, raising a glass with everybody else.
That's who Mike Shula was for Alabama fans. After having our hearts stepped on by Franchione and then being totally embarrassed by the Mike Price scandal, Mike Shula seemed like the perfect candidate to make us feel proud of Alabama again. A good-looking guy with a gorgeous wife and wholesome family, Shula also had the benefit of a quality pedigree (do I have to spell it out?) and his identity as a former Alabama quarterback, during which time he did this:

And this:

Really, the only thing anyone could say negative about Shula was that he wasn't Sylvester Croom, one of the other finalists for the job that spring (along with Richard Williamson). A few things were said about Alabama's unwillingness to hire a black coach, but everyone agreed to be happy with who we had and move on.

And the truth is, even the most ardent of Alabama fans intended to give Shula a pass for anything that happened in 2003. Without the benefit of a spring practice, leading a program that was still under the gun of NCAA sanctions, against a difficult SEC schedule, the consensus was that, so long as they were competitive, Alabama in 2003 didn't have the loftiest of expectations.
What's easy to forget, now, is how good that team actually looked in Week 1. Brodie Croyle was the perfect quarterback to run Mike Shula's system (when he was in the lineup, more on this later) and he had senior tailback Shaud Williams (more on him in a minute, also), along with a veteran receiving corps and offensive line. On defense, 'Bama had Antwan Odom, Ahmad Childress, Freddie Roach, Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah, et al. It wasn't a bad team.
For a fleeting moment, the team really looked like a team that could achieve much. The Tide dismantled a decent South Florida team in Birmingham (the last game ever at Legion Field, it turned out), then played a No. 1-ranked Oklahoma team to the hilt in a night game in Tuscaloosa. That was a surreal moment in Alabama history: ESPN Gameday was in town, the atmosphere was a fever pitch ... and 'Bama played the absolute best it could, with Oklahoma making a handful of plays down the stretch to seal a hard-fought victory.
As it turned out, 2003 was full of those kinds of games. After beating a decent Kentucky team in Tuscaloosa to go 2-1, the wheels fell off for Shula's squad: Alabama lost at home to Northern Illinois (employing MIchael "The Burner" Turner), lost at Ole Miss and Georgia in blowout fashion, and lost multiple-overtime heartbreakers to Arkansas and Tennessee in Tuscaloosa. It was here that Alabama's lack of depth showed: Croyle separated his shoulder (but somehow kept playing), and Alabama's backfield was whittled down to the point that Shaud Williams was the lone reliable ballcarrier (Todd Bates' preseason suspension for ephedra use didn't help the defense, nor did Ray Hudson's suspension for marijuana possession).
Moreover, the disturbing pattern that would dog Shula's teams for most of his tenure at 'Bama showed in that stretch: his teams simply never rose to the occasion. The Arkansas loss was the most galling of all: Alabama led 31-10 in the third quarter, faltered down the stretch, made a few key mistakes and ultimately lost in double OT. That pattern repeated itself in the season-ending loss to Auburn: Alabama played gamely, couldn't hold off the Tigers and lost by 2 (a disinterested Tide team also lost its "bowl" game at Hawaii to finish 4-9).
The tragic figure of the '03 season, of course, was Williams, who transferred from Texas Tech to Alabama to play for Dennis Franchione (after Leach was hired at Tech), had to sit out the '01 season, had to deal with the announcement of the sanctions just after he arrived, finally broke into the lineup as a situational back in '02 ... and then the coach he came to play for fled the scene like the place was on fire. Williams also ardently spoke up for Price during that saga, openly weeping in front of the media when news of his ouster became public. And he played his absolute maximum for Shula on a terrible team that was doomed before it ever started.

'Bama fans like me were willing to forget about '03, for the most part, because of the promise '04 held. Everyone forgets this now. Croyle was returning as a junior (limbs intact). Hudson, Ken Darby, LeRon McClain and Timmy Castille were all back in the backfield. The offensive line was a veteran group. Tyrone Prothro was a breakout star. The defense, it turned out, was the best such unit in the country for much of the year. With a full year under its coach, '04 should've been a breakout year.
It was fun for about 15 minutes. Alabama dusted its first three opponents: Utah State, Ole Miss and Western Carolina. The offense looked sharp, particularly Croyle, who looked comfortable and playing in an offense he was born to quarterback.
Except the injuries kept coming. 'Bama lost Croyle, Hudson and Castille to torn ACLs. Croyle's loss was particularly crippling, as it left poor Spencer Pennington to quarterback an offense he never had any business running. To be completely fair to Pennington, he was a fantastic athlete who Franchione recruited to run the option. Given the right system and coach — Urban Meyer, for example — he probably would've been a perfectly adequate playmaker, someone who could make plays with his feet and freelance in the open field.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the situation in 2004. Pennington was a square peg in Shula's pro-style offense, which required precision timing and an accurate arm, two things he simply couldn't do. Even more befuddling, his head coach refused to do anything (seriously, not a frigging thing) in the way of adjustments that might've helped. I'm not kidding: no rollouts, quarterback draws ... nothing. The head coach just kept throwing him out there and crossing his fingers.
And so the 2004 season became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: opposing defenses stacked the line against Darby, who had no choice but to take his licks and come back for more. And Joe Kines' defense played as well as it could, kept every game close ... only the offense couldn't rise to the occasion at any point. This will become familiar.
(Note: Spencer was the tragic figure in '04, looking lost for most of the year, unable to make big plays vs. Tennessee, LSU or Auburn, then gave up football after the season to go play baseball.)

Conversations leading up to 2005, then, took on a familiar tone: no one was sure whether Shula could ever be a big-time head coach in the SEC, but no one knew exactly how much coaching prowess he had because his two teams had suffered so many injuries. He'll be fine, he just needs some players.
(Note: Around this time was when I moved back to the state after two years in Georgia. I was firmly in the "give him some time to get some players" camp, until multiple writers reminded me that he appeared to have no adaptive skills. I watched with great interest.)
The 2005 season was, of course, the one most people considered the "make or break" year for the head coach. Alabama solved its lack of a "signature win" under Shula by beating South Carolina and undefeated Florida (31-3), survived road tests in Mississippi (including a tough game vs. State led by, yes, Sylvester Croom) and finally exorcised the demons vs. Tennessee.

With Croyle finally healthy (really this time) and the backfield looking good, the offense finally clicked on all cylinders once or twice (vs. Carolina and Florida) and the defense was every bit as good as it had been the season before. The day of the Florida game, in October that year, Alabama looked every bit the part of the best team in the country.
Injuries cropped up again, though (of course they did). First it was Prothro, who suffered the most gruesome leg injury I ever remember watching live (seriously, it was so bad I didn't believe it happened at first). In November the offense lost J.B. Closner, which became a huge issue in the final two weeks of the season against blitz-happy LSU and hard-rushing Auburn.
The LSU game was the next "BIGGEST GAME EVER" that season: the Tigers were 9-1 that year, and Alabama was ranked third in the country. And like always, Alabama hung tough, couldn't make a play when it mattered and ultimately lost in overtime. The next week, Auburn thumped a disorganized Alabama team 28-18.
And it was here that the tide really started to turn against Shula, even after the dramatic bowl victory against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Even though he was unequivocally a nice guy, his teams kept falling short in big games. Even though he was a purported offensive guru in the NFL, his offenses had never performed at a high level. The defense had carried the offense on its back for two solid years, and — with the exception of the Florida game — his teams never beat anybody in anything that might be considered an "upset."

And so, 2006 played out like more of the same, as Alabama seemed best by a combination of lousy play-calling and pure bad luck. The famous "Leigh Tiffin Game" in Arkansas set the tone, followed by losses at Florida and Tennessee, a ghastly home loss to MIssissippi State and loss No. 5 to Auburn. In each and every game, the defense fought gamely to give the team a chance. In each game, the offense simply couldn't make a play when it mattered most.
There was speculation upon speculation after that. Some believed he'd be fired on the spot (you forget this now, but the blog we now call "Capstone Report" was originally called ""). Others said he would relinquish his play-calling duties and get another year.

My wife actually woke me up the night it happened. "They're reporting coach Shula's been fired." I didn't really know how to react. I was, among my friends, one of Shula's most vocal critics, noting he was always getting outcoached, his teams always a play short where other teams weren't. Once they said he was gone for sure, though, I couldn't help but feel for a guy who had made the best of a bad situation.
To his eternal credit, he handled his termination like a class act to the very end: never had a tearful press conference downing the university, never wrote a damning tell-all book or gave a vindictive interview with ESPN and always talked about how much he loved Alabama. You don't really hear much anymore from the guy, now an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. I'd like to think he's happy for Alabama and its fans, now that we're back to the top of the mountain.

And if I ever see him, I guess I'll have no choice but to thank him. Doesn't seem like anybody else is going to.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

shameless promotion (2.0), part ii

Here's this week's SCT column, which wound up rambling on and probably made very little sense to anyone other than me. But you can have fun with it nonetheless. Enjoy.

The new class could be the best of all-time

Editor’s Note: The dope who writes this column is very aware that graduation passed by more than a month ago at schools, both local and otherwise. Let’s pretend it’s still salient and move on.

An open letter to the graduating class of 2010:

First of all, my sincerest congratulations. You survived.

Does that sound a little extreme? Maybe. Still, to finish high school — whether you finished with honors, or whether you plan to go any further with your education — is a milestone of the utmost survival, and you deserve every cheer, hug and gift you’ve received in the last month or so.

(As an aside, the absolute worst part of graduation is writing “thank you” notes for the gifts people gave. I remember thinking I would rather have driven to each person’s house and thanked them in person — even the people that lived across the country — than to have written one more “thank you” note. Anyway, what we were talking about again?)

I come to you with both good news and bad news, now that you’ve reached the peak of this hill known as “primary education.” Actually, climbing the next mountain is both the good … and the bad.

In many ways, this world you’re inheriting has never been any better. We’ve figured out ways to keep ourselves alive longer, with fewer health complications than ever before. We can travel greater distances at greater speeds and communicate with people halfway around the globe at a moment’s notice.

(True story: A few years ago, my brother went overseas to study in Hong Kong for several months. We could talk to him every night, for free, through the power of Skype. No kidding.)

In some other ways, things aren’t so good. This new wave of medicine has turned us all into giant hypochondriacs (look that one up); we’re all terrified of everything, including salt, grease, anything that produces smoke and temperatures above 90 degrees. It’s just as annoying as it sounds.

Further, that technology that’s so wonderful — and while we’re here, allow me to mention our Web site, — hasn’t actually made us more informed people; in fact it seems to be the opposite. Our society doesn’t seem to be any more informed or active in civic issues than it ever was … although we do know way more about who played Lynn Tanner on “ALF” and what spell Molly Weasley used to defeat Bellatrix Lestrange (ummm … spoiler alert?).

Here, I’m afraid, is where you come in. Studies show that your generation is more optimistic about the future, has a “can-do” attitude about work and works well with diverse groups. It will be your job to teach those older than you that the world doesn’t have to be so gloomy all the time.

Often you have heard your great-grandparents’ generation — the one that survived the Depression, won the last world war and started the Baby Boom — called “The Greatest Generation.” Right now, very few would argue that assertion.

But you can be the greatest generation. No, seriously. Remember: “The Greatest Generation” also gave us state-sponsored racism, the horror of Vietnam, the disgrace of Watergate and created the massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the world several times over.

You can do better. We all can. And unfortunately, we’re going to have to if we have any hope of surviving down the road.

For better or worse, that’s the deal. Here’s to you, as you start your journey.

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.