Johnny Manziel; Brandon Belt; Matt Flynn/Terrelle Pryor; Tiger Woods; David Ortiz; Josh Reddick/Yoenis Cespedes/Sonny Gray
IN THE MID-80s, in one of our talks when he was athletic director at Stanford, Andy Geiger compared what was happening in college football to the arms race: When one school got something, another school had to have something better.
That trend has only accelerated since. Practice facilities, such as the one just finished at Cal, are far more complex than they used to be. Oregon, not incidentally, is now using its second such facility.
Coaching staffs have increased in size and salaries have increased even more. The overall result has been that football, which once supported a broad range of non-revenue producing sports, now is hard-pressed to break even. Perhaps the SEC schools make money but even successful programs elsewhere are struggling.
That has forced schools and conferences to pursue TV money relentlessly, turning their back on their main support group, their alumni.
We have seen that locally, big time. Many people think that tailgating was invented at Stanford games, with the extensive parking around the stadium. When games started at 12:30, fans could congregate before the games and after. Now, though, with so many night games and an unpredictable schedule, thatís much more problematical. Stanford is finally sold out for the season, with a 50,000-seat stadium, but thatís because loyal alumni are trying to support the stadium. Iím sure that, except for the most attractive opponents, there will continue to be many empty seats for the night games.
Itís even more extreme at Cal, which is struggling to pay for the stadium reconstruction with much higher ticket prices. When you add in the uncertainty of scheduling and night games, itís much worse. Because of the shortage of parking near the stadium, for afternoon games, fans will park some distance from the stadium and walk in. Nobody wants to do that at night.
Meanwhile, the NCAA continues to put strict restrictions on what athletes can make. These restrictions came into sharp focus when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, sold his autograph, a real no-no for the NCAA, which has been investigating the situation.
At the same time, there is a suit pending which charges that colleges are taking advantage of football players and should be paying them.
If the athletes truly get an education, the athletic scholarship they get is a real bargain. But, realistically, that situation is rare. They do at the top private academic schools, Stanford, Rice and Vanderbilt, but only Stanford has a successful football program. Some public schools, Cal among them, make a serious effort to educate athletes.
But the reality is that, at most schools, if athletes donít want a rigorous academic schedule, there are many easy courses that keep them eligible while doing absolutely nothing for them academically. And, many athletes are happy with that arrangement. Though aiming at a pro career is unrealistic, with perhaps three per cent of players actually making it in the NFL, that is still the goal for many collegiate players.
But, paying college players would raise many questions.
For instance, if you paid football players, would you pay players in other collegiate sports? Would you pay only for the sports which were making money? And, what about the womenís sports? Stanford, Tennessee and Connecticut, with consistently successful programs, are surely making money now.
For sure, this would bankrupt the current programs. Iíve maintained that football, because of the increasing injury problems, including concussions, will eventually be dropped by schools. If this suit is successful, it will greatly accelerate the process.
THE SILLY season, otherwise known as the NFL preseason, drew the ire of Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins, who predicted that in the near future, it will be eliminated.
Good luck with that. I wrote for years at The Chronicle that the games were a terrible ripoff for season ticket holders, many of whom didnít even go to the games. Those columns had the impact of a pebble thrown into the sea.
The only writer who had success with that kind of campaign was John Steadman, the Baltimore sports editor who campaigned against that practice until the Colts dropped it. But Colts owner Robert Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis not long after that.
The NFL has made only one concession, reducing the number of exhibitions from the six they had when I was covering the Raiders to four. But the number of regular season games has increased from 12 in the Ď50s to the current 16.
The exhibitions are money-makers for the owners, nothing more. The coaches play their starters as little time as possible. The only game that means anything at all is the third game. Coaches hardly play the starters in the fourth game because they donít want to risk injury, and the games are often scheduled about 10 days before the season opener to give the teams a chance to rest.
That doesnít stop writers from speculating about backup quarterbacks. I saw a column the other day saying that Matt Flynnís time might be short as a Raiders starter because Terelle Pryor had looked better in the first exhibition. Please. Flynn will get every opportunity. Pryor is an intriguing spot player, nothing more at this stage.
CORRECTION: I wrote last week that David Ortiz failed a drug test and was suspended. That is incorrect. He was mentioned on a list of those suspected of taking PEDs but never failed a drug test.
AND, SPEAKING of my frailties, my prediction that Tiger Woods would win another major this year was as reliable as last Octoberís prediction that the Detroit Tigers would beat the Giants in the World Series.
For most of the year, Tiger has been easily the most dominant golfer on the tour, but when he gets to the majors, he obviously gets that clenching in the throat that dooms him. In the majors, something always seems to be going wrong for Tiger. In the PGA, he was never in contention. Even when he was dominating the tour, Tiger never won a major when he was trailing going into the final two rounds. Heís great at coming from ahead but no Arnold Palmer when heís behind.
Tiger is still only 37 and in great condition, but in his current frame of mind, he has no chance of reaching his goal of winning five more major titles and surpassing Jack Nicklaus.
I am trying very hard to suppress my grief.
ON SATURDAY, I got to the Giants-Orioles game early, while batting practice was still going. The stands were nearly empty, which got me thinking about how baseball has changed since I first started covering major league games for The Chronicle in the Ď60s.
At that time, most fans came early to watch batting practice. That was my pattern in my youth, too, whether going by myself or with my family. My mother commented much later that she never knew you could go to a game without watching batting practice first.
Of course, that was at a time when games were played in not much more than two hours and sometimes less; I wrote recently about seeing Catfish Hunter pitch back-to-back complete games in the Aís first two weeks in Oakland in 1968. Catfish never wasted time, and he had great control. He gave up many home runs but they were almost always solo homers.
Now, you only occasionally see a pitcher working rapidly. Mark Buehrle does it. So did Mark Mulder when he was with the Aís. Most pitchers stall on the mound, even when there are no base runners, and batters are forever stepping out of the box, and then back in. And, of course, you have all the TV commercials in between. So, games go close to three hours on the average. I donít blame fans for not wanting to watch batting practice, too, though Aís fans who do can expect a treat from Yoenis Cespedes.
At Saturdayís Giants-Orioles game, many of the fans didnít even make it for the start of the game. As I looked out at the sections in front of the press box, I estimated that there were 50-60 empty seats. Half an hour later, the seats were all full. The fans hadnít missed anything; the first two times through the order, the Giants had only a single by Brandon Belt. They finally broke through in the sixth and another Belt hit, a ground-rule double that hit just short of the fence in the deepest part of the ball park, was the table-setter for Hunter Penceís two-run double to right.
Belt was named National League Player of the Week after he went 11-for-25, with two homers and three doubles. It was the breaking out that Iíve looked for from Belt, and I would hope we wonít have any more claims that Brett Pill should be the starter at first.
THE AíS seem to be righting their ship after a brief slump since the All-Star game, with three wins in Toronto over the Blue Jays. Josh Reddick, who had struggled all year, had five homers in two games. Itís amazing that the Aís have done as well as they have with nothing from Reddick and much less than expected from Cespedes. If both hit their norm the rest of the way, the Aís will be in great shape.
I liked what I saw of Sonny Gray, watching the TV in the Giants lunch room on Saturday. He seemed to be making good pitches and he had good composure when he got in trouble. The Aís continue to develop good young pitchers and, though Bartolo Colon will probably retire after this season, theyíll be in good shape next year with Brett Anderson back.
Meanwhile, the Giants may have a battle to keep Tim Lincecum, who is pitching very well as he approaches free agency. What a coincidence. Lincecum has said he wants to return to the Giants but he may get an offer that will change his mind.
Pitching is key to the Giants because they continue to have problems with position players. Theyíll get Angel Pagan back next year, which will be big, and Iím sure theyíll re-sign Hunter Pence. But, that probably leaves them with Gregor Blanco in left field, a superior defensive outfielder but a mediocre hitter with no power. Not exactly what youíre looking for in a corner outfielder.
The Giants have been auditioning Roger Kieschnick lately but he hasnít shown much. Jeff Francoeur doesnít appear to have much left in the tank and heíll probably be gone after this season.
Lack of power continues to be a problem for the Giants. Belt is stepping up but Pablo Sandovalís decline has offset that. Sandoval looks lost at the plate. There are some who think heíll have a bounce back season next year as he approaches free agency, but I doubt it.
So, celebrate the World Series win last year. It may be some time before the Giants get there again.
STANFORD HAS had its ups and downs over the year. The Cardinal had a terrible stretch earlier, under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, but turned it around under Jim Harbaugh. His successor, David Shaw, is the anti-Harbaugh personally, being quiet, soft-spoken and modest, but heís doing possibly an even better job, getting a Rose Bowl win last season, with another strong team this season.
But, win or lose, the one thing Stanford has almost always had is a good quarterback. That goes all the way back to 1940 when Clark Shaughnessy brought the modern T formation to the west coast, with Frankie Albert as his quarterback.
I never saw Albert play, with Stanford (I was a pre-schooler and living in Minnesota at the time), nor with the 49ers, but Lou Spadia saw Albert in a game at Kezar that season and always remembered that nobody even knew where the football was most of the time because of Albertís ball handling skills.
The first Stanford quarterback I saw was John Brodie, when I was at Cal. Brodie was an excellent quarterback then Ė though at Cal we mocked him because he failed a course in Movie Appreciation Ė and an even better one with the 49ers. As with all quarterbacks in that situation, 49er fans blamed him for losses even though an awful defense was the real reason. If you want to know how good Brodie was, talk to Gene Washington. With Brodie in his early years with the Niners, Washington was probably on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But the quarterbacks who followed Brodie after his retirement were unbelievably bad, so Geneís statistics suffered enormously.
Perhaps the best Stanford quarterback in terms of production, Jim Plunkett, not only led the then Indians to an upset win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl but won the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft in an exceptional year for quarterbacks; Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini followed him. Plunkett was beat up badly in his early years with the New England Patriots, who had a terrible offensive line, but when he finally recovered from that beating in late career, he led the Raiders to two Super Bowl triumphs. Given a decent team around him, Plunkett was always a winner.
When Bill Walsh came to Stanford, he liberated Guy Benjamin, who had been on the bench because he didnít hide his contempt for Jack Christiansen, the dinosaur who was coaching Stanford. Christiansen also wouldnít play James Lofton because he skipped spring practice to run track. Under Walsh, Benjamin became an NCAA passing champion as Stanford beat LSU in the Sun Bowl, and Lofton started a career which culminated in election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For sheer ability, nobody topped John Elway, who was both a great passer and a dangerous runner. But Elway didnít have the best players around him and he had a terrible coach, and his collegiate career ended on a sour note when ďThe PlayĒ in the 1982 Big Game negated a brilliant late game drive Elway had engineered, starting on his own 17.
His pro career was much like that until the end. He got two inferior Broncos teams to the Super Bowl, where they lost. Late in his career, he finally got a strong running attack to balance his passing and the Broncos won the Super Bowl.
It would be easy to make a case for Andrew Luck as the best ever at Stanford. He was almost as good an overall athlete as Elway and had more success. He was also a No. 1 draft pick and seems on his way to a great career. He is also as level-headed as any athlete Iíve ever interviewed.
Now, the Cardinal has Kevin Hogan, and it will be interesting to see how the rest of his career develops. So far, itís been sensational. After Shaw made the decision early last season to switch quarterbacks, the Cardinal took off. It wasnít just Hogan. Stanford also had a great running back, Stefan Taylor, who has graduated and a strong defense. But at Stanford, it all starts with the quarterback.
PET PEEVE: Hitters who take a close pitch on a 3-2 count and then pitch a fit when theyíre called out on strikes. If itís close enough to be a strike, itís close enough to swing. Donít expect the umpire to bail you out.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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