Thursday, September 9, 2010

Big Ten scores the touchdown, but misses extra point regarding divisions

By Matt Vachlon

The Big Ten announced its new divisional alignment last week and Michigan and Ohio State were placed in separate divisions.

Yet there was no rioting here in Big Ten country. No people with torches on a march to Park Ridge, Ill., home of the Big Ten Conference Headquarters.

After all, Ohio State and Michigan will still be playing each other the last game of the season.

Thus, the fans won!

But really it was Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany who emerged victorious, simply for holding his ground.

You see, logic definitely dictated that the league’s four premier programs: Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State needed to be split. It’s always a big event in college football when two bluebloods share the field, so they rightfully were spread evenly across divisions.

And splitting the Michigan and Ohio State was absolutely the right move.

Big Ten championships have historically been on the line when these two meet, so while playing for a division title sounds nice as a concept, it’s just not the same. The only way to keep these high stakes was to leave the opportunity open for Michigan and Ohio State to meet in the Big Ten Championship Game.

And while I probably would’ve moved the game to a date earlier in November, those who worry that “The Game” might lose some of its luster by being played at the end of the season, with a potential repeat matchup in the championship game a week later, are being foolish. Remember, the credo of the BCS is that the whole season is a playoff. If anything, there’s now less room for error since the game will be played so close to the end of the season.

As for the rest of the divisional make up, I was a little disappointed. I think Delaney over thought the process.

Competitive balance should not have been the main priority after dealing with the four aforementioned programs. Rivalries, after all, are what make college football special, and, for the most part, they go hand in hand with geography. Having those games have implications on the divisional standings when it doesn’t involve tradition-rich programs also doesn’t hurt.

Consider that in-state rivals Illinois and Northwestern are now split up. Over 100 years of history between Wisconsin and Minnesota has been banished to opposite divisions. And worst of all, since a protected crossover game will at least assure that the first two aforementioned matchups will still occur on an annual basis, Iowa and Wisconsin won’t be protected.

Sorry, I’m just not convinced that Wisconsin and Iowa are so elite that they had to be separated. Check how their all-time records stack up against their Big Ten brethren if you don’t believe me.

And while I know that Delany looked at data from 1993 to the present to determine balance, the move is still short-sighted. Iowa and Wisconsin have indeed ranked up with the big boys during that time frame, however, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue have all made Rose Bowl appearances since then, as well. What’s to stop one of them from forming the next dynasty?

Add in the fact that the ACC has been criticized for a very similar format and I would’ve done a geographical North-South split.

To do so, I would’ve flip-flopped Northwestern and Wisconsin. The move appears minor as it only preserves one more trophy game than was previously protected, but Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota should be in the same division. It also allows for an annual Nebraska-Wisconsin game which is what both schools reportedly wanted and puts Illinois and Northwestern back in the same division.

Now I know my divisions appear unbalanced, but name one school (besides Michigan and Ohio State) that is missing any of its traditional rivals. And happiness is what really matters anyway.

Just ask Nebraska.

Monday, May 17, 2010

One, two, three strikes Selig’s out regarding baseball’s most recent issues

By Matt Vachlon

Apparently, I was being too nostalgic for Bud Selig’s taste.

It was only two weeks ago when I called for Selig to step down, based on a decade of poor decision-making. The commissioner responded last week by taking his ineptitude to a whole new level.

He stepped up to the plate and whiffed on three pretty significant issues: the 2011 All-Star Game, the Phillies binoculars scandal and the relocation of the Blue Jays-Phillies series.

I kid, of course, that Selig’s decisions had anything to do with what I said. But, all kidding aside, his actions continue to raise red flags regarding his decision-making skills.

In simply ignoring calls to move next year's All-Star Game from Phoenix, as a result of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Selig missed the opportunity to make an important political statement, regardless of his stance. As Bob wrote, “whether you disagree with the bill or not, you must realize that sports are more than just a getaway for a 40-year-old guy to decompress after a day’s work.”

The Phoenix Suns, who are in the midst of a playoff run, certainly weren’t afraid to take that stand.

But Selig, instead, took the coward’s way out spewing something about Major League Baseball’s minority hiring record and how he received a lifetime achievement award from the Jackie Robinson Foundation. That’s fantastic and congratulations to him, but it has little to do with addressing the issue at hand.

And it’s one that certainly requires his attention.

Two-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez of the San Diego Padres has already gone on record as saying he will boycott the All-Star game next year if the law is still in place. So has White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. With nearly 25 percent of Major League players being of Latin American origin it’s a fair assumption that many of them could be impacted by this new law.

Add in the fact that the All-Star game determines home-field advantage in the World Series and it make’s Selig’s view (or lack thereof) incredibly short-sighted. After all, can you really play such an important game without some of the game’s best players?

Of course not, which is why such a gutless response was so unacceptable in the first place. If he truly believes the game absolutely must remain in Phoenix, then the players are owed an explanation, and one that amounts to more than just saying “we’ve built up enough good will, so deal with it.”

Then again what do you expect when your commissioner supports cheating?

I was truly disheartened by Selig’s response to accusations that the Phillies were stealing signs from the Colorado Rockies’ bullpen with binoculars. While I have no problem with players or coaches stealing signs with their own eyes (the signs are meant to prevent this in the first place), the use of foreign devices is a different story. A commissioner simply must be above the “back in my day this happened so that makes it okay” response. As I’ve said before, think of what used to happen “back in the day” regarding any facet of history.

At least we know that excuse can’t be the reason behind the bone-headed decision to shift the Blue Jays-Phillies series from Toronto to Philadelphia because of the G20 summit.

Prior precedent in those cases would’ve moved the series to a neutral site. Upon looking at the schedule for that weekend, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Detroit were all suitable and available locations.

The end result is that Phillies get three more “home” games than everyone else (even if they’re technically going to be the visitors), while Blue Jays get three less and lose out on welcoming Roy Halladay back and drawing perhaps their biggest crowds of the season. Why the G20 summit wasn’t taken into consideration when the schedule was made is beyond me, but as I’m sure you now realize, much of what that man does is baffle me.

With about 75 percent of the season still to go, one can only wonder what Bud is still capable of screwing up.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sports: Both entertainment and forum

By Bob Herman

Things have blown up in the past couple weeks since Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070, which aims to identify and deport illegal immigrants from the state. Protests, rallies, and general discussion of the much-overlooked issue of immigration have exploded, and it's even seeped into the world of sports.

And I couldn't be happier.

I understand many people would prefer that their favorite athletes and teams stay out of the political discussions. They are around to play ball, nothing more. Well, I disagree. Athletes just so happen to play ball in one of most widespread and noticed open forums in the country: sport.

Things particularly intensified in the areas surrounding and including Arizona roughly two weeks after the bill had passed. The Phoenix Suns wore their "Los Suns" jerseys during their Cinco de Mayo playoff matchup versus the San Antonio Spurs. A few days before, prominent Hispanic slugger Adrian Gonzalez of the nearby San Diego Padres said he'd even go so far as to boycott next year's All-Star Game in Arizona because of the bill.

Whether you disagree with the bill or not, you must realize that sports are more than just a getaway for a 40-year-old guy to decompress after a day's work. We are all surrounded by athletics--newspapers, magazines, TV shows devoted to the area--so I find it invigorating when people like Gonzalez and Steve Nash take advantage of the great forum that is sport and state their views. As Dave Zirin said in this interview on Democracy Now!, "anybody who believes that sports cannot be an effective platform for social justice need only to have watched the [Suns game] last night and they would’ve been forever changed."

These recent acts of solidarity among America's professional sports leagues are not anything new, especially in the international sporting community. Who could forget Tommie Harris and John Carlos, in the 1968 Olympics, raising their arms for "Black Power" and adorning themselves in symbolic artifacts during the civil rights movement? And South African sports especially used their political voices during the apartheid era.

The point being, this is good for sports. Moreso, this is good for the country. Expressing the beauty that is our First Amendment right--and having it expressed to millions of sports fans--is a great way to create debate. Heck, it even prompted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to defend the bill on ESPN of all places.

So props to the sports and political figures for using the platforms that reach many people, and actions like these definitely make me respect someone like Adrian Gonzalez even more. He's not afraid to belt a dinger out of Petco, and he's not afraid to speak out against a bill that brings racial profiling to the surface. Regardless of how you feel about the bill, you have to admire the way a stereotypically inactive, national sports community is responding.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Hey MLB this isn’t rocket science: This Bud isn’t for you

By Matt Vachlon

Bud Selig has had his fair share of critics over the years and I’ll admit me calling for his ouster is not a novel concept.

But at some point you have to wonder how many lives this cat has.

In a year where the Milwaukee Brewers have decided to honor their former owner with a statue, Selig has continued to do what he does best:

Perpetually make Major League Baseball a laughingstock.

The man who has overseen such dazzling achievements as the 1994 player’s strike, the failure of the Montreal Expos and a steroid scandal that has tainted baseball’s record book forever has offered us two more gems so far in this early season: the possibility of floating divisions and, this past week, the adoption of more rules changes to the All-Star Game.

Hey Bud, I know you plan to retire in 2012, but do us all a favor and go away now!

Seriously, I could write a novel about the stupidity of each of these ideas, but for your sake I’ll try and stress only the most obvious flaws. In the case of floating realignment, baseball in steeped in tradition and part of that tradition comes from rivalries. That can’t continue when your divisional rivals change each season.

Then there’s the message that it sends. Shifting divisions based on a team’s outlook on winning should raise all kinds of competitive red flags. Is there really much of a difference between shifting divisions in order to play more popular opponents because you plan on being bad, and fixing a World Series?

While obviously a bit of a stretch, I think it’s a slippery slope. Fortunately, I don’t think this plan will come to fruition, but Selig’s 14-person “special committee for on-field matters” should be fired for even considering such a thing.

Sadly though, the abomination that the All-Star Game has become is very real.

As if having home-field advantage in the World Series determined by an exhibition game in July wasn’t stupid enough, Selig has outdone himself this time. In making the designated hitter a permanent fixture in every All-Star Game, no matter the venue, he has now assured that home-field advantage will be determined by exclusively playing by one league’s rules. If I were a fan of a National League team, I’d be outraged.

Also, expanded rosters wouldn’t be necessary if the game, and remember it counts, weren’t managed like a Little League contest. Currently, we have fans voting who starts for each team and each manager trying to make sure that everybody plays.

Bud’s solution to this problem: Let’s make up a special rule, for this game only, which says one position player can be designated as eligible to return to the game.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Oh, and now starting pitchers that pitch on Sunday are ineligible. This rule would be fine if it weren’t for the magnitude of the game. If you’re a manager of a first-place team you might be tempted to not pitch All-Star starter in a critical Sunday matchup because you hope he can help secure you home-field advantage by participating in the All-Star Game. Laugh at this scenario if you want, but it is plausible.

Essentially, Selig implemented rules that would be perfect for an exhibition contest, except that he’s made the All-Star Game anything but that.

It’s Selig in a nutshell. He never quite gets things right.

Unless, of course, he decided to step down now.

He would get that one right.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Look for NCAA to add a cherry to its expansion sundae

By Matt Vachlon

...And then, like a bad dream, it was all over.

At least, that’s how I felt upon hearing the news Thursday that the NCAA was only expanding to a 68-team tournament. After watching the quality of some of the games from this year’s NIT, it truly was unsettling to realize that all those teams could’ve been in the NCAA’s 96-team expansion model.

However, after returning to my senses, I realized that the NCAA’s new plan still had one glaring omission, which leads to one major question.

How will new teams be added into the bracket?

It’s a pretty safe bet that since the NCAA already had one play-in game with 65 teams, that it will simply add three more play-in games so that each region will now have a play-in game. Who will be playing in those games is a different story.

A common assumption is that the play-in games will continue to be for the right to be a 16-seed. I don’t deny that sounds like something the NCAA would do. After all, you can’t humiliate the big schools by making them play an extra game.

Or can you?

You can if the NCAA goes for the money grab. Seriously, I hope the NCAA goes all fifth-grade bully in a school cafeteria on this plan and tries to shake out every bit of loose change available before its implementation.

Now, before I go any further, I know what you’re thinking.

You’re saying to yourself, “How can you utter those words, Matt, especially after writing this a mere two months ago? And even more than that, why are you now backing the same selfish interests that you directly criticized the NCAA of when you wrote about expansion?”

In short: because it’s a win-win for everybody.

Let’s acknowledge for a second that the play-in game was going nowhere. Even though no one even remotely cared about Winthrop vs. Arkansas Pine-Bluff (except those associated with the schools) this past year, you never heard any rumor that the NCAA would go back to a 64-team field. That’s because you’d have to give up an at-large bid to do that since both were recipients of automatic births and likely cost yourself the presence of a big-name school.

I understand that logic, even if I disagree with it. But now, you’re going to tell me that one of the attractions of signing this TV deal for CBS/Turner was to have four of these games?

Nope, the draw is that you match up the bubble teams.

This accomplishes two things. First, it turns that Tuesday night of play-in games into a must-see event. Using teams suggested by ESPN’s Dana O'Neil, a quadruple header featuring Florida-Virginia Tech, UTEP-Illinois, Minnesota-Utah State and Mississippi State-Georgia Tech becomes instantly more palatable than the aforementioned match-up. I know that despite my protests against a larger field, I wouldn’t be against an extra day of meaningful basketball.

Second, from the NCAA’s side of things it gets us used to an extra round of games. According to CBS’s Gary Parrish, the NCAA hasn’t promised it won’t revisit expanding to 96 in teams in the future and I don’t doubt that. The jump to adding an extra round isn’t as great when you’re already used to an extra day.

I realize that my plan pushes us closer to the evil that is a 96-team field. But the reality is that if the NCAA wants it, it will come, no matter what we think. In the meantime, I just want 68 teams to be a great as it can possibly be.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Phil's big day a blessing for PGA

By Matt Vachlon

Phil needed this. His wife needed this. His family needed this.

But the PGA needed this more.

I mean they really, really needed this.

When Phil Mickelson’s putt on 18 clinched his third victory at the Masters and led to his ensuing embrace with his wife, Amy, it may have brought about one of the more touching sports moments in recent memory, but it very likely caused some of the PGA’s big wigs to high five as well.

And they’d be smart to cash in on it.

I’m not trying to be crass. There is nothing more touching in sports than raw emotion in its truest form and this was a prime example. While I will not pretend to know what Mickelson and his family have been through over the past year in dealing with Amy’s and his mother’s breast cancer, the fact is it had to be hellish.

So the Mickelsons were understandably ecstatic to have something positive happen.

But if you’re the PGA, you also had to be ecstatic.

You see, the coverage leading up to this week wasn’t about Mickelson. It was about Tiger. That’s not a total shock. After all, Tiger is back and unquestionably he’s the straw that stirs the PGA’s drink. Add to the fact that he kept himself in the running to win the tournament all the way through Sunday, and you can see why much of the coverage was warranted.

The problem is, Tiger still has a bit of an image problem right now. The resulting chaos doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon and the PGA desperately needs to distance itself from this.

However, thanks to one of the most ironic weekends in sports history it now has an opportunity to do so.

Sure a noticeably rusty Woods gutted out a tie for fourth place at his first tournament in five months. But his absence was due to self-induced marital issues. Mickelson also had distractions which kept him away from the game of golf. However, his distractions were of the life or death variety and were beyond his control.

Phil ended up the winner, both athletically and morally.

An added plus is that Phil Mickelson is not some Johnny-come-lately with a great story. He’s a pillar of the sport, as evidenced by the winning of his third green jacket and fourth Major and, as a result, he’s one of the few who can rival Tiger’s popularity.

Let me be clear, I’m still not an advocate for making athletes into role models, as I explained here . But what happened at Augusta on Sunday was something so truly special on an emotional level and so badly needed for the sport that the PGA would be foolish to not try and capitalize on it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Butler Still Wins

By Bob Herman

It's the perfect story that just didn't technically quite happen, yet we all wanted to happen.

When Butler barely lost to Duke 61-59 Monday night in the NCAA championship game, and I mean barely, the first reaction was utter shock and disbelief. Butler had gotten this close, and it came down to a missed Gordon Hayward fade-away baseline jumper and the most dramatic half-court shot that couldn't go in.

For a team like Butler to make the national championship game is, well, not very common. It was the first time the Dawgs had ever sniffed this kind of territory, and to get that close and not seal the deal was devastating to say the least.

But this all needs to be put into perspective.

Heading into this year, Butler was ranked 11th in the nation, but no one really expected this team to make it to the national championship game. For god sakes, this well-oiled machine of a team made it to the school's first-ever Elite Eight, Final Four, and national championship game.

Anyone who is a fan of Butler--and even those who aren't--will always remember this college basketball season for what Butler did. The Dawgs took on the biggest of the bigs and beat nearly all of them. Yes, this is the ultimate goal for any team, but it's the way Butler almost did it that gives hope to every other small school out there (I apologize for the indirect "Hoosiers" reference, but it's true...).

Now the big news is whether Brad Stevens will take this, that, or the other thing and if Gordon should stay or go now. But those are side items to a season that I and every other Butler fan will never, never, forget.

To the entire 2009-10 Butler Bulldogs basketball team, we can't thank you enough for what you've given us and the basketball world in an age that is rampant with recruiting malfeasance and teams run by the almighty dollar. You gave everyone a team to cheer for, and you played the right way, The Butler Way.

Sure, Duke won according to the record books, and I can't stop thinking about the "what ifs" from that game, but Butler is still the true winner of this year's college basketball season. Butler took the sport back to its roots and captured the hearts of millions along the way.

And as Ron Nored was quoted, "This isn't the end of our story. It's only the beginning."