Pete Newell/Don Lofgran/Rene Herrerias; Jarrod Parker/Sonny Gray; DeSean Jackson; Reggie McKenzie/Dennis Allen; Marco Scutaro
MARCH MADNESS is about to descend on us, but letís be serious: This is more about office pools than it is about basketball. I didnít even participate in office pools when I worked in an office, and I havenít worked in one since I became a full-time columnist for The Chronicle in late June, 1972.
I had a friendly argument with a Chronicle writer a few years back when he wrote that March was the most exciting sports month of the year. He loves college basketball, of course, but March is also a month without football or baseball, which are unquestionably the top sports in the country and the Bay Area. My nomination is September, when both the NFL and college football begin and baseball teams are driving toward the postseason. Those sports donít need office pools to build up enthusiasm.
Thereís more than a little irony about the NCAA tournament riding a crest of popularity because of these office pools because it was gambling that first allowed the NCAA tournament to become paramount.
In the Ď40s, the NIT, played in New Yorkís fabled Madison Square Garden, was the major tournament. USF, with Pete Newell coaching and Don Lofgran and Rene Herrerias as the stars, won the tournament in 1949.
Then, a gambling scandal hit, as an investigation showed that top college players were taking bribes to shave points. The NCAA took the high ground, saying that the problem was the gamblers at games in New York. Their tournament was clean, because games were played in college gyms.
Of course, 10 years later, an even bigger scandal hit the game. Turns out, players in college gyms were just as susceptible to bribes as those playing at Madison Square Garden.
Those in positions of power within the NCAA just ignored this. They had already won the war. Hypocrites? Of course. But, thatís always defined those at the top of their power structure.
So, the tournament itself is still riding high, with the NIT an afterthought. I discovered that first hand when I covered the Cal Bears in the 1999 tournament. I enjoyed being in New York, staying at a hotel in Times Square; I even had time to see Bebe Neuwirth in a revival of ďChicagoĒ. But the arena wasnít even half-filled for games, even with a sizeable contingent of Cal fans, and accounts of the games were buried deep in the sports sections of New York papers.
The NCAA, though, is in trouble, facing lawsuits for using athletes to make money while only giving them scholarships. I thought at one time the scholarships were a bargain if athletes got an education but few do. Even my own school, Cal, has been shortchanging them in recent years.
I think this whole structure will come tumbling down in the near future, but in the meantime, weíve still got the Office Pools Tournament.
I donít expect the Pac-12 to make much of an impact. Arizona has faltered lately. UCLA looks like the strongest team in the conference right now and Arizona State is a decent team.
Stanford made it but as a sixth seed, and the Cardinal still has Johnny Dawkins as its supposed coach, so I donít see much tournament success in its future. One factor which may help Stanford, though: Its lack of depth. That has forced Dawkins to stay with his starters instead of just shuffling players in and out of the lineup willy-nilly, as has been his M.O. in previous years.
Cal slipped to the NIT, which is all the Bears deserve. This team had the talent but no heart. Game after game, they didnít show up until halftime. Iíve often said that Mike Montgomery is the best college coach Iíve covered since Pete Newell, but Montgomery couldnít reach these guys. Makes me wonder if heíll decide to retire from coaching. I wouldnít blame him.
Whoís going to win the tournament? I havenít the foggiest idea. Nor do I care. I wonít bother to watch a game.
EARL ROBINSON, a basketball and baseball star at Cal (and a classmate of mine), suffered a serious heart attack a few weeks ago. His extended health coverage ran out and an impressive number of former Cal athletes, spearheaded by Pete Domoto, are raising money for his extended care. More than $14,000 has been raised but much more is needed.
Dennis Fitzpatrick has agreed to collect contributions which come in so, if you want to contribute, send checks written to Fitzpatrick to: Dennis Fitzpatrick, Pac Ten Partners, Partner, 1689 Comstock Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. 90024. Include a cover letter saying itís for the Earl Robinson fund.
THE AíS have a deep pitching staff but it was still a blow when they learned that Jarrod Parker, their project Opening Day started, will have to have his second ďTommy JohnĒ surgery, sidelining him for the year. General manager Billy Beane had feared this, which is why he didnít trade lefthander Tommy Milone, who will become the fifth man in the starting rotation.
Now, Sonny Gray will probably pitch the opener. I was very impressed by what I saw of Gray last season. I believe that, by midseason, Gray would have been regarded as the staffís leader. Now, heíll be shoved up the ladder sooner but I think he can handle it.
As usual, the Aís will be in a division with teams spending far more money but they still have won the division for two straight years over the free spenders. Thatís a tribute to the front office, to manager Bob Melvin and to pitching coach Curt Young. The Aís have been putting together teams which have changing lineups against right- and left-handed pitchers, and the players have bought into that because they have faith in Melvin.
MEANWHILE, THE AíS ownership disputed my Examiner column of last week on owner Lew Wolff standing in the way of a new stadium, putting out a ďSetting the record straightĒ e-mail.
I was wrong on one statement, saying the Aís were not paying rent. I had been given the wrong information.
The rest of it, though, was nonsense. Wolff now claims he tarped off premium upper deck seats to create an excitement among the fans, not to reduce attendance. Yeah, and thatís the reason he canceled ďFanfestĒ one year, and the reason he sent out e-mails before the start of seasons saying he wasnít committed to Oakland.
As for Bud Selig saying that Walter Haas had given Bob Lurie territorial rights to San Jose in 1990 and never rescinded them, thatís just another example of Seligís slippery morality. This is the same man that joyfully watched the pumped up Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shatter season home run records in 1998, boosting attendance through the league, and then condemned steroids use when Barry Bonds broke the career home run mark of his boyhood idol, Hank Aaron. Selig also claimed that baseball had the steroids problem under controlóuntil a lab was discovered with extensive records about players getting drugs.
Selig also commissioned a study on the best city for the Aís and has been sitting on it for about five years now. He knows that the agreement MLB made with the Giants, giving them exclusive rights to all the counties going down the peninsula into San Jose, is what prevents him from even bringing up the issue of letting the Aís move to San Jose.
Still, it does make a pretty story: If only Walter Haas had taken back those territorial rights. And, gullible sportswriters will keep repeating it.
RUMOR TIME: The 49ers were in the news this week when the Philadelphia Eagles said theyíd be willing to trade temperamental receiver De Sean Jackson. Immediately, speculation started that the Niners and New England Patriots might trade for him.
The 49ers could certainly use a receiver with Jacksonís speed and talent but he comes with some baggage. I followed Jackson during his Cal career and he was a spectacular player, especially on kick returns. But I had an off-the-record conversation with Jeff Tedford when he told me that criticism of quarterback Nate Longshore was unfair because a receiver often didnít run the right pattern. It didnít take a genius to know what receiver he was talking about.
Concerns about Jacksonís route running and discipline led him to fall in the draft. I donít think heíd get away with that with the 49ers because Jim Harbaugh wouldnít tolerate it, and neither would other 49er players. But, thereís a real question whether Jacksonís contract would fit into the teamís salary structure, especially since theyíve lost veteran players trying to keep everything in balance.
So, I think the Jackson-to-49ers story line will be a no go. Still, itís a tantalizing one.
IN TUESDAYíS Examiner, I wrote about the good moves Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was making in free agency, and heís still making them, picking up Packers receiver James Jones and offensive linemen Kevin Boothe and Donald Penn. McKenzie was criticized when he gave up his claim to Rodger Saffold and Saffold quickly re-signed with the Rams but the last thing the Raiders need is another injured veteran. The Rams think Saffold can play with a bad shoulder but that seems a bad risk to take.
McKenzie was also criticized because he didnít use the franchise tag to keep Jared Veldheer, but thatís a tricky strategy. A team could wind up with an unhappy player making more money than he deserved. McKenzie wants a team with players who want to be here, which is a reasonable goal.
McKenzie is working on two fronts: He is bringing in veterans in free agency while preparing to build a much younger team through the draft. Jones got a three-year contract but the other free agents have been getting one- or two-year contracts.
This is a very sensible way to handle the situation. Building through the draft is always the best way because you can teach rookies your systems, offensively and defensively. Even free agents who have been stars elsewhere can falter in different systems. Or, if they get a big enough contract, can ďretireĒ while still playing. Richard Seymour was a perfect example of that.
This may finally be the year when Dennis Allen can be fairly judged. Iíve stayed away from that because itís unfair to judge a coach who has inferior talent, especially one in his first head coaching job. I still remember that there were writers who campaigned for another coach when Bill Walsh went 2-14 and 6-10 in his first two seasons with the 49ers. Iím not saying that Allen will be anything like Walsh, just that he deserves a chance to show what he can do with decent talent.
McKenzie had been criticized earlier by writers who were following the herd instinct. Thatís one of the big problems with the sports media today. The other is great confusion because there are so many voices out there, many of them bloggers who come no closer to the games than their TV sets.
It is possible to analyze baseball players and teams by watching them on TV because baseball is an individual game wrapped in a team setting. Some issues can affect performance: A lefthanded hitter who doesnít pull the ball probably isnít going to hit many home runs at AT&T Park. Conversely, heíd be in hogís heaven at Yankee Stadium.
But, overall, baseball is baseball.
Thatís not at all the way football works. Football is a game of systems, and itís also a hidden game, in that you donít know watching it what was intended. For instance: I had a reader who used to watch offensive line play through binoculars and, though I told him it was foolish to make judgments because he didnít know blocking assignments, he did that continuously. At various times, for instance, he told me that Joe Staley and Anthony Davis were busts. Oh, why didnít I listen to him?
Newspaper writers understand this Ė bloggers are just hopeless idiots Ė but they rely far too heavily on statistical analysis. Again, circumstances affect those judgments. One time, Steve Young told me that a quarterback playing in a Bill Walsh offense should complete at least 60 per cent of his passes, because Walsh believed in short passes which receivers would catch in stride and turn into long gainers. In contrast, when I covered the Raiders, Al Davis subscribed to the Sid Gillman theory of pass offense, stretching the field with long passes. One year, 1968, Daryle Lamonica didnít complete even 50 per cent of his passes but nobody criticized him because the Raiders went 12-1-1 in the regular season before losing to the New York Jets in the AFC championship game. The Jets, of course, went on to win the Super Bowl.
So, I just want to scream when writers cite a statistic, such as the ever popular quarterback rating, to determine whether a quarterback is successful or not. I think a writer covering a team should know what to expect from a team and star players and be able to make a judgment without statistical formulas. I guess that makes me old school.
IT ISNíT even the regular season yet but the Giants face a serious injury problem with veteran second baseman Mario Scutaro and his ailing back. Scutaro took the field this week for the first time and survived but, at 39, he remains a question mark. And, the Giants do not have anybody else who comes close to bringing what Scutaro brings.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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