Monday, November 28, 2005

Beating the Bad Guys

I have not yet publicly commented on Vandy’s thrilling 28-24 victory over Tennessee, but suffice it to say that these are good times on the black and gold reservation. Imagine your hated rival beating you so often on the gridiron that he doesn’t even consider you a rival anymore. Throw in all the close calls over the years that get your hopes up before dashing them at the end. Finally, sprinkle in the intellectual debris you have to endure from Vol fans because you dare root against Big Arrnge in a football-crazy state like Tennessee. It’s nauseating.

Now imagine going into their house and punking them in front of 105,000 of their redneck fans and the eyes of the entire nation. It feels pretty good. It won’t ever get old.

Some of you out there will argue that beating Tennessee in a down year doesn’t make Vandy special, seeing as how nearly everyone was able to do the same. I don’t buy that. Up and down Tennessee’s roster, you will find a who’s who of high school football talent that vaulted the Vols into the stratosphere of the recruiting rankings the last five years. They may not be coached very well, but there’s more talent on one side of the ball in Knoxville than there is in all of Nashville. It’s a fact. UT ought to be able to line up and blow the Dores to hell based solely on natural ability.

Next, ask Tennessee fans (slowly) how they feel about losing to Vandy. You’ll find that they aren’t very keen on losing to them pencil-necked geeks on West End, no matter how bad things get. You’re supposed to beat Vandy when you’re the flagship university in the state, oozing winning tradition, and sitting on a mountain of booster cash. That’s just the way things work. Losing to South Carolina and Florida and Notre Dame…those are the potholes in the road when you’re a football factory. Losing to Vanderbilt is confirmation that the wheels have come off altogether.

This is fun to watch.

Contrary to popular belief, Vandy isn’t a total laughingstock athletically and doesn’t have to worry about losing its membership in the SEC. Men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and the non-revenue sports are in excellent shape. Its only laggard is football, which is showing signs of life and progress under Bobby Johnson.

Of course, the only sport that matters around Knoxville is football. Football drives the gravy train and pays the freight. That’s why Phil Fulmer is willing to look the other way when his players are brawling, raping, stealing and carrying on. It’s also why he’ll take players from diploma mills and suspect JUCOs. Winning puts butts in seats. The fan base will tolerate the brawlers, rapists, and thieves as long as the Vols keep winning. They will tolerate academic fraud regardless, because most of Tennessee’s fans did not attend the school and do not value education.

Which makes it all the more special when the good guys get it done on the field. Congratulations to the Dores for beating Tennessee!

Other Notes
QB Jay Cutler again proved who the man is this season in the SEC, effectively validating the opinions of the conference coaches who named him first team all-SEC in the preseason. He led the conference with 279 passing yards per game, SIXTY YARDS PER GAME BETTER THAN THE NEXT CLOSEST QB. The media would be licking his nuts if he played for a better squad, much like they’re currently doing with Reggie Bush. NFL personnel execs are paying attention too, and he’s likely going to be the second passer picked in this year’s draft. Not bad for a signal caller with no other QB offers out of high school…

Final Thought
Doreblogger favorite Ed Orgeron, the Ole Miss coach who never recruited anyone he couldn’t whip, has been outed by Tulane as having initiated contact with Green Wave coaches in an attempt to poach their players after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Orgy is headed down the road to become one of the SEC’s worst football hires EVER based solely on his lack of professionalism and results. We all know about his first player meeting in Oxford, during which he challenged every player in the locker room to a fight while ripping off his shirt.

This, however, is pretty low. Tulane hasn’t even disbanded its football program and he’s on the prowl. Yikes. Throw in the criminal history and you’ve got a massive headache on your hands. Ole Miss faithful would rather lose with a gentleman coach than win with a boar like Orgeron. He’s not exactly burning down the win column, either.

If I’m Middle Tennessee, I would make this guy an offer tomorrow. Underperforming tough guys who butcher the English language are always welcome in Slappyville.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

They Ought to Put Warning Labels...

On Vanderbilt football.

It's the real-life manifestation of the Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown lines up to kick the football and runs towards it, only to have Lucy pull it away at the last second and wind up on his back.

You could also describe Vandy football in terms of Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus", where the protagonist is condemned to rolling an enormous rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down the hill again and again. According to the gods, "there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor".

The Commodores could make anyone an existentialist. For you MTSU fans out there, have a literate buddy explain it to you.

Every year ends in disappointment. This one ended later than most years.

Every year I swear that I won't be back. Like a crack ho itching for a rock, I always go back.

Is it next year yet?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pot Committed

When good, competent people make a bad decision, how they deal with it after the fact reveals more about them than the decision itself. Economists are guided by the principle of sunk costs; in other words, an investment decision must be made based on its merits today, not by how much you’ve already spent or lost. That money is gone and should not factor into your decision.

Good poker players know this as well, and bet according to whether or not it’s smart to do so AT THAT TIME. The prior series of bets is irrelevant. The irrational gambler sees the amount of chips that he has contributed to the pot and stays in even when he knows that he is beaten. He is “pot committed”.

So is Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart with regard to his football program.

Three years ago, coach Guy Morriss led the Wildcats to a 7-5 season and wanted a pay raise for his efforts. The prior coach had run afoul of the NCAA and sanctions were on the way. Kentucky wasn’t even that attractive a place to coach anyway, having spent decades wallowing in mediocrity following the departure of Bear Bryant. Baylor was on the phone making overtures.

Barnhart threw up no roadblocks. Morriss went to Baylor, and the Kentucky football coaching search began. Some of football’s biggest names were rumored to have been in the hunt, including Steve Spurrier, Bill Parcells, Norm Chow, and even the ghost of the Bear himself. Whom did Barnhart select to lead Kentucky’s football program?

Rich Brooks. I hadn’t heard of him either. Nobody was impressed.

It turns out that Brooks was pretty far down the list. Already in retirement, Brooks had stints with both the University of Oregon and the NFL’s Rams. His record was under .500 at both stops. If Barnhart was looking to make a splash with this coaching hire, he had failed miserably.

Brooks’ record at Kentucky is a woeful 8-23 eight games into his third season. He has sharply divided the loyal Wildcat fan base with his negative attitude and excuse making. The effects of probation have eaten into his available talent, but that didn’t account for the pathetic effort being shown on the field. Injuries have taken their toll, but those affect every team.

Despite overwhelming evidence that the original hire was a mistake, Mitch Barnhart remains “pot committed”, having assured Brooks yesterday that he would be back for his fourth season. Wow. If only I could keep my job after failing 75% of the time.

Why does this admitted Vanderbilt fan even care that the AD for another SEC also-ran bumbled this decision not once, but twice? I’ll tell you: Kentucky fans deserve better. They show up en masse every Saturday to root on the Cats no matter how bad they are. Their stadium seats 70,000 and it always looks full. I was at last year’s game versus Vanderbilt, where nearly 60,000 people came out to see a 1-8 Kentucky squad take on a 2-7 Commodore crew. It was brutal football, but they were there nonetheless.

I still believe that UK fans are loyal to a fault. Most would rather stop attending the games and supporting the football program with their money until things turn around. Instead, they hang on, fearful of being labeled a traitor by their fellow fans. It’s amusing and depressing at the same time.

Somehow, in the last several weeks, the tide has turned. The prevailing opinion in the bluegrass seems to be that Brooks deserves more time, and that probation and injuries are to blame, not Brooks. The players like him, and the recruits want to play for him, or so we’re told.

Yesterday, Mitch Barnhart made it official that Brooks would be back for his fourth season in 2006. He has hitched his own wagon to an aging, ornery coach who has yet to leave any coaching stop with a winning record. The program probably needed more than three years to turn around anyway. Since it wasn’t Brooks’ fault that his predecessors lied and cheated, he should get more time, no matter how awful his results thus far may seem.

In other words, Barnhart is pot committed. For the Big Blue faithful, I hope he isn’t burned on the river.

Vandy Football Notes
Next Saturday’s game at Tennessee will be carried by JP, marking the eight of eleven Vandy games this season to be televised. This is nothing short of remarkable. The biggest factor influencing the outpouring of scorn around the country for SEC officiating after the Florida game is that it was on television for all to see.

I would not want to be Kentucky this week. First of all, they’re terrible. More importantly, they are walking into Nashville one week after Vandy got jobbed in the Swamp. Vandy is still playing for a bowl game. It’s Senior Day, so it’s Jay Cutler’s last home game. Last time I checked, Vandy is a two touchdown favorite and I think that they are going to cover.

Tonight’s Matchup
West Virginia at Cincinnati. The Mountaineers venture to the land of running water and modern dentistry to take on a Bearcat squad that doesn’t capture anyone’s fancy, much less this observer. West Virginia wins this one going away by pounding the ball on the ground.

BCS Bowl Presidents are openly praying for West Virginia to win out and represent the Big East in the BCS. Since Morgantown is a depressing place to be, Mountaineer fans travel to bowl games like crazy, which is all that bowls really care about anymore. I mean, if your Big East champ is South Florida, your bowl revenue and TV ratings are in the crapper.

Final Word
If you’re looking for a pair of tickets to the Kentucky-Vandy men’s basketball game in Nashville on February 11, look no further:

http://cgi.ebay.com/Vanderbilt-vs-Kentucky-Basketball-2-Tickets-2-11-NR_W0QQitemZ6577772155QQcategoryZ16122QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

This game sells out every year. Make someone special happy for Christmas!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Doing Time in the Black and Gold Slammer

When I was in college down in Texas, I worked for about four months for a dishonest small businessman named Mike. Mike hired me to manage the finances for his landscaping company, which were routinely in terrible shape. Though he couldn’t balance a checkbook to save his life, Mike dreamed about training other people how to start and run their own businesses, even taking a cut from his brothers’ landscaping companies in exchange for “mentoring” them. To my knowledge, the only things he taught them how to do were to listen to death metal and evade income taxes.

Since Mike was “living the dream”, he wanted everyone to be able to do the same. He routinely hired some of Austin’s finest to help him cut grass, including stoners, deadbeats, and ex-cons. One old boy, whom I’ll call Raul because I don’t remember his name, was fresh out of the penitentiary. Raul thought that I was impressed with his stories of crime and punishment, so he kept on telling them to me. An imposing figure, Raul claimed that he had never lost a fight in prison, and that he took up for the little guy a time or two, even coming to the rescue of one poor sap who showered with the wrong crew, so to speak.

Eventually, Raul got around to telling me about the unluckiest of offenders, those who were assaulted so often that their will to fight and survive was broken. These inmates took to wearing their boxers backward to make things easier. While I shed no tears for what happens to criminals in prison, Raul’s account provides the perfect metaphor for something near and dear to my heart.

Vandy football.

If you saw the abortion that took place in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game at Florida, then you know what I’m about to say. For everyone else, I will recap.

Down 35-21 with four minutes remaining in one of college football’s most hostile environments, the good guys marched the ball down the field and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to seven. As Vandy’s kickoff unit stood on the field ready to try the onside kick, Florida was in disarray and had only SEVEN men on the field. One referee stood in front of the ball, preventing Bryant Hahnfeldt from kicking off. Another was on Florida’s sideline, politely informing Urban Meyer that he needed a few more bodies out there. Meyer called a timeout, thankful for the game management assistance he got from the SEC’s finest.

Vandy not only recovered the onside kick, but drove the length of the field AGAIN. With 54 seconds remaining in the game, QB Jay Cutler found WR Earl Bennett in the end zone for the touchdown, prompting screams of jubilation in my household heard all the way from Birmingham to Detroit. Now down 35-34, I pleaded with coach Bobby Johnson to go for two and end it right there, since our defense did not have the gas in the tank to slug it out in overtime. Leave it all out there, like Baylor coach Guy Morriss did last year by going for two against Texas A&M and winning outright. He must have heard me, because he motioned for a timeout to think it over.

The decision wasn’t his to make.

The referee in the end zone, Rick Loumiet, called a fifteen-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Earl Bennett for excessive celebration. WHAT!?! A Vanderbilt player guilty of rubbing it in the opponent’s face, or calling attention to himself? The same Vandy players who face stiff sanctions from the coaching staff if they cuss on the practice field? The same players who draw the fewest penalties in the SEC, and nearly the fewest in the country? You’ve got to be kidding, right?

He wasn’t. Even though replays showed nothing that deserved a penalty, it was called anyway and enforced on the PAT. Johnson didn’t have the chance to go for two. We were lucky to have made the 35-yard extra point to send it into overtime. Florida failed to score in regulation and the captains for the two teams assembled at midfield for the overtime coin toss.

Jay Cutler wouldn’t look the ref in the face. I would have spit in it.

It was over right then and there.

I could fill a highlight reel with all the bad calls and no-calls that Vandy football has endured over just the years that I have followed this team. Like the Ole Miss game in Oxford in 2004, where Cutler had his helmet turned around by a Rebel defender using his face mask as a tackling handle, as a referee three feet away did nothing. Or the time two years ago where our punt return man shielded his eyes from the sun and was penalized by the ref for running with the ball after making the catch, because he believed that a fair catch was signaled. Don’t forget the dozens of late hits that Cutler has absorbed over the past four years that have gone uncalled. It’s amazing he can still walk.

You know, I thought I had seen it all when the referees allowed a Georgia touchdown pass earlier this season that clearly his the turf before the receiver trapped it. The announce team from ESPN2, Mike Gottfried and Sean McDonough, were watching the definitive replay in their booth while the SEC officials hurriedly awarded six points to the Bulldogs. SEC Supervisor of Officials Bobby Gaston apologized the following week for having blown the call, like it mattered at that point.

Now this. We ought to just wear our boxers backward and save them the trouble.

Jay Cutler demonstrated again why he’s the best quarterback in the SEC, and cemented his status as the second best quarterback in this upcoming draft behind USC passer Matt Leinart. On the road, in one of college football’s most hostile and unforgiving venues, the man looked up at a fourteen-point deficit with four minutes left to play and did not quit. Once again, he took an entire university on his back and marched down the field to score. Twice.

It wasn’t good enough.

It’s hard enough to beat eleven men. It’s impossible to beat eleven men, a crew of officials, and the guys upstairs in the replay booth. I like Vandy’s chances in a fair fight against anybody, honestly. We won’t win them all, but we won’t fold either.

Good luck getting a fair fight against an SEC powerhouse.

This kind of crap is drawing national attention to the SEC’s embarrassing quality of officiating. Analysts from ESPN.com and SI.com have already lambasted the excessive celebration penalty called on Earl Bennett. Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser from ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” devoted an entire segment of their show to it, which is unheard of for a squad like Vandy. Vandy fans aren’t the only ones tired of the little guy taking it up the ass in the SEC when they’ve earned the right to compete fairly.

Some folks will counter that had we not turned the ball over three times in regulation against Florida, that it wouldn’t matter. They are missing the point here. Those were things that WE did on the field, not the refs. Let’s not forget that top-15 program Florida was at home in front of 90,000 fans and had a 4-4 Vandy team put up 35 points on them in regulation, which is more than LSU, Georgia, Alabama, or Tennessee did. Little old Vandy, who wasn’t aware that they were supposed to bend over and pick up Florida’s soap.

You know whom I feel the worst for? Jay Cutler, who became Vanderbilt’s all-time passing leader this week and owns every other Vandy record known to man. Four years of getting the shit kicked out of him, and only ten wins to show for it. He had his chance to leave last year and go to the NFL. Shoot, his dad begged him to. There, he’d be protected by professional linemen and receive the best coaching and training possible.

Jay chose Vanderbilt. Twice.

Saturday’s game against Florida should have been the highlight of a brilliant career. For four quarters, he outplayed everyone wearing blue and orange. It won’t make up for the four years he has spent taking it prison-style from those wearing black and white.