Sunday, December 6, 2015

Offsides? ACC had $6M riding on Clemson

The moment of truth: Who in blue is offsides?
     I have never been one to second-guess referees, umpires, and others who enforce the rules of our games. Almost without exception, the officials I have known are hard-working, decent men dedicated to doing a difficult job with sharp-eyed excellence and blind justice. 
     So I don't doubt the integrity or judgment of the linesman who made the critical call in Saturday night's ACC championship gamea phantom offsides call on an onside kick that essentially robbed North Carolina of a chance to beat Clemson.
     But I do question the awkward spot his bosses put him in. Because if I read the rules right, the Atlantic Coast Conference essentially had a $6 million bet riding on Clemson. 
     That's what the ACC earns for having a team in the College Football Playoff. If 10th-ranked North Carolina had won the ACC championship game, it probably would not have qualified for the four-team playoff. But No. 1-ranked Clemson was a cinch to make it. Therefore, it was in the ACC's financial interest for Clemson to win.
     If North Carolina had won, the ACC's $6 million slice of the pie probably would have gone to the PAC-12 or Big Ten.
     That's about $400,000* per school, which is not a lot in terms of the millions that flow through college football nowadays.
     But it is unseemly for the ACC to have a financial interest in which team wins its championship.
     In fact, it has been in the ACC's interest to protect Clemson throughout November, ever since the Tigers beat Florida State and asserted themselves as the nation's No. 1 team. The same thing was true last year for the Seminoles. And the ACC is not alone in this. It is equally true in other conferences. The SEC needed Alabama to beat Florida. The PAC-12 needed Stanford to beat Southern Cal.
     Clemson fans and the ABC crowd (Anybody But Carolina) will see further irony in this. Many of them believe the ACC protects UNC. The Tar Heels play in a division where they rarely have to face Clemson or Florida State. Chapel Hill has hardly been punished for decades of academic scandal.
     If that's your perspective, then Saturday night was your justice.
     Was justice done? I have to believe the linesman honestly thought he saw an infraction on North Carolina's last-minute onside kick even though it was not evident on TV replays. I can't believe anyone from the ACC would have dictated that call go in Clemson's favor. (Lest we forget, the official threw his flag at the start of the play, before he knew if the penalty would help Clemson.) I look forward to hearing from a reporter who actually seeks out that official so we can hear his side of the story.
     I'll bet $6 million that's he's more impartial than you or me.

* Always follow the money

     Speaking of $400,000, that's the going price that North Carolina paid little Delaware and littler N.C. A&T to come to Chapel Hill for games back in Septemberworthless victories and wasted weekends that ruined the Tar Heels' playoff resume.
     If the Tar Heels had just been willing to play Appalachian State (like Clemson did), and if they had beaten South Carolina (like Clemson did), and if they had played anybody better than Miami (like Clemson did), they might have been taken seriously as a playoff contender. In that casehad UNC been awarded possession of the onside kick, tied the game, and gone on to beat Clemson in overtimeimagine the orange outcry we'd be hearing today.
     Speaking of Appalachian, "we" joined Florida State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina as 10-win teams on Clemson's schedule. If you're keeping score, the Apps had more rushing yardage against Clemson than any of those Top 10 teams. When Mark Richt and Miami come to Boone next September, they better "bring their A game," if not their ACC officials.

Friday, October 30, 2015

My hat's off to the Trite Trophy

     You hear it all the time in football coaches' post-game interviews: "My hat's off to my guys."
     Almost invariably, the coach who says it keeps his cap on.
     Nobody actually tips his hat anymore. Etiquette died out about the same time that Bear Bryant hung up his houndstooth fedora. Steve Spurrier (the last coach to beat the North Carolina, by the way) may have been the last to routinely doff his visor.
     But my ears perked up Thursday night on ESPN when I heard those words from the UNC football coach wearing his baby-blue visor as he talked about beating Pitt. Of all people, he ought to be a master of the chapeau cliché. After all, his name is Fedora.
     Obviously, His Head Wasn't In the Game, no matter how well his guys Put a Hat on a Hat.
     Fedora's faux pas was all the more notable because he said it in Pittsburgh, which as some of us old sportswriters know, is the home of the Trite Trophy.
     The Trite Trophy is the Brainchild of Gene Collier, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For over 30 years, he has presented the cliché of the year in an after-Christmas column, boldfacing them in context like I'm doing here. I suppose he wrote the first one so he could take a day off during the holidays. Now, it's become ... A Tradition Unlike Any Other.
     The Trite Trophy is an annual treat for ink-stained scribes and anyone else who feels the urge to edit (or strangle) TV sports commentators and interviewees as they try to Fill the Gaps in dead air.

     In Collier's words:
The purpose of the annual Trite Trophy column is to expose lazy language to mockery's blistering lamp, whatever that means, in the hope that we can create A Hostile Environment for the folks who traffic in such nonsense. A quick look around, however, reveals that not only have the members of the Trite Committee (me) Lost Their Swagger, but Face Long Odds of ever Getting Their Swagger Back. More pointedly, 27 years of cliché slinging To No Avail pretty much guarantees they've Fallen On Their Faces.
     Go read the 2015 edition, when the winner was (drum roll) Miss Colombia ... excuse me: Next Man Up.
     Just for Old Times' Sake, I've posted a list of the annual champion clichés, with links to several. After you read a few of these columns, you'll find that the Post-Gazette has Set the Edge and put you on a quota. You can come back next month, but You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist to figure out how to Turn the Corner and read more.
     Of course, one honest way would be to actually pay a few pennies to read the newspaper. But that's so Old School.
  • 2017: High Point the Football
  • 2016: In the Protocol
  • 2015: Next Man Up
  • 2014: Shy of the First Down
  • 2013: Going Forward
  • 2012: Take a Shot Down the Field
  • 2011: Are You Kidding Me?
  • 2010: At the End of the Day
  • 2009: Dial Up a Blitz
  • 2008: Manage the Game
  • 2007: They're Very Physical
  • 2006: It Is What It Is (the Archie Griffin of the Trite Trophy--the only two-time winner)
  • 2005: It Is What It Is
  • 2004: Shutdown Corner
  • 2003: Cover 2
  • 2002: Running Downhill
  • 2001: Put Points on the Scoreboard (first runnerup was Put a Hat on a Hat)
  • 2000: Walk-off Homer
  • 1999: Somebody's Gotta Step Up
  • 1998: Eight Men in the Box
  • 1997: Show Me the Money
  • 1996: Been There, Done That
  • 1995: West Coast Offense
  • 1994: Red Zone (the greatest living cliche--a phrase that became a stat, a deodorant, a TV channel, and even a movie)
  • 1993: It Hasn't Sunk In Yet
  • 1992: Mentality of a Linebacker
  • 1991: You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist
  • 1990: Smashmouth Football
  • 1989: He Coughs It Up
  • 1988: They Went to the Well Once Too Often
  • 1987: Gutcheck
  • 1986: Crunch Time
  • 1985: Throwback
  • 1984: Play 'Em One Game at a Time

Monday, August 17, 2015

Newspaper went down, but the soul was saved

     My newspaper colleagues will enjoy the following story, which I discovered in the April 26, 1865 issue of the Southern Watchman, published in Athens, Ga., the week before Stoneman’s Yankee cavalry invaded the Classic City and commandeered the press.

     Google finds more than a dozen versions of this story in various newspaper archives. The earliest I've found was in the Baltimore Patriot, which printed it in 1857 and folded in 1859. Of course, you can trace the roots of the story all the way back to the Garden of Eden
     I know of at least one Civil War newspaperman who prospered by selling his journalistic soul to the godforsaken Yankees. William Brownlow was a former Methodist preacher who was paid by the Federal government to publish a pro-Union paper in Tennessee. Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator propelled "the Fighting Parson" to election in 1865 as the post-war governor of Tennessee.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Long live King John of Summerville

ESPN's 2012 portrait of John McKissick
with the ring for his 600th victory

     John McKissick won his first state championship the year I was born.
     And another one the year I graduated from college.
     And another one the year I retired from sportswriting.
     I figured he might win one more the year I died.
     Of course, it was inevitable that he would have to stop someday, but I always figured John had one more season in him—maybe even one more championship. So did he. If you ever asked him about retirement, he always insisted that coaching football kept him young. Even this past winter, at age 88, he sounded optimistic about one more year.
     However, after leading his team through spring practice in the Charleston heat, he confessed, "I think my age is catching up with me." On Tuesday, after 63 years on the job, McKissick announced his retirement as football coach at Summerville High School.
     Think about it63 years in a profession where one bad year could be terminal. King John has reigned as long as Queen Elizabeth (and he has been crowned more often, too.)
     Public school teachers can retire after thirty years, but McKissick doubled that and still kept on working. His daddy taught him not to pay somebody else for work he was able to do himself, and he never did.
     McKissick became so iconic that Pat Conroy cast him as the standard of excellence in his 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides, where a fictional coach named Tom Wingo lamented:
"Never once did I defeat one of those awesomely disciplined teams of the great John McKissick of Summerville. He was a maker of dynasties."
     Conroy recited that passage when he wrote the foreword for McKissick's 1993 autobiography:
"That was my act of homage to John McKissick, and it expressed my utter admiration with how he has chosen to spend his life. A great coach teaches a boy or girl that the body is the temple of something sublime and wonderful. Coach McKissick has done this surprisingly well. I wish, in my heart, that John McKissick could have coached me in football when I was a boy. Quite possibly, he could not have made me a better athlete, but I think he could have made me a better man."
     Numbers are not the full measure of the man, but let's consider McKissick's accomplishments: 621 victories in 63 seasons, which is far more than any other football coach in history. 
     Now that McKissick has retired, he has established a distant target for John Curtis Jr., who ranks second nationally with 561 victories in 48 years at John Curtis Christian High School, a private school in suburban New Orleans that was founded by the coach's father. The younger Curtis, age 69, had an 11-1 record in 2016. If he averages 10 wins a year, he will be 75 before he catches McKissick.
     The winningest coach in college football history is John Gagliardi, five weeks younger than McKissick, who retired from St. John's of Minnesota in 2012 with 489 victories. Penn State's Joe Paterno, who was three months younger than McKissick, holds the major-college record of 409 after the NCAA restored his victories earlier this year. Dabo Swinney pointed out that McKissick won nearly twice as many games as Bear Bryant.
     The NFL record is 328 by Don Shula, who is four years younger than McKissick and has been retired for 20 years.
     Among all those giants, ESPN The Magazine called McKissick "Coach of the Century" in a 2012 story that I highly recommend.
     He was a child of the Depression and a member of the Greatest Generation. As he told ESPN's David Fleming: 
"During World War II, I was a paratrooper waiting to go to California with orders to ship out to the Pacific to join the 17th Airborne in battle. But then we dropped the bomb, and everything slowed down. The lives that decision saved or changed … I was one of 'em."
     I figure that McKissick has been carried off the field on his players' shoulders at least 14 times10 state championships, plus his 347th victory in 1987 that broke Pinky Babb's state record, plus the 406th in 1993 that broke Texan Gordon Wood's national record, plus his 500th in 2003 and 600th in 2012.
      His last state championship in 1998 was also the last football game I covered, as Summerville beat Gaffney 31-23 to wrap up a perfect 15-0 season. What I'll remember most about that season was not the state final at Williams-Brice Stadium but a first-round playoff three weeks earlier on John McKissick Field—the only time I ever had an opportunity to see a game in Summerville. Knowing my career change was imminent, I asked John if I could eavesdrop on his pregame speech, and he graciously invited me into the locker room. Sixteen years later, all I can remember is how businesslike it was. John, then 72 and in his 47th season, let an assistant give the pep-talk.
      I dealt with John every week for 13 seasons when he participated in our state coaches' poll, and he was unfailingly pleasant, accommodating, and wise.
     In 1991, when I was working on a centennial history book for Mountain View United Methodist Church in northern Greenville, I asked him if he might be kin to our founding pastor, Eli McKissick. 
     "He was my grandfather," John told me.
     Now, this grandson of a 19th-century circuit-riding preacher has become the grandfather of Summerville's 21st-century coach. On June 25, school administrators honored McKissick's recommendation and promoted his 36-year-old grandson, Joe Call, to be the head coach for 2015.
     If Joe has his grandfather's success and longevity, Summerville won't need another coach until 2067.

John McKissick set a national record with his 406th victorythen won 215 more.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Sunday in Rick Barnes' foyer

     I was glad to see that Rick Barnes found work with the University of Tennessee just two days after being ushered out by the University of Texas. He's a good man and a good coach, and I'm glad he will not have to spend Easter negotiating for a job. 
     That's what he was doing in 1998 when he left Clemson to go to Texas. That Easter morning was the last time we dealt with each other face-to-face. 
     My job at the time was to cover Clemson sports for The Greenville News. The year before, Barnes had taken Clemson to the Sweet 16, which for a sportswriter like me meant a sweet junket to Kansas City and San Antonio.
     But small-town Clemson and the condescending ACC were starting to chafe on him. At the same time, big-time college sports was making me pretty cynical.
     We were both ready for a change, and as usual Rick was a step ahead of me.  
     It all came to a head that weekend, as Barnes negotiated with Texas. Understandably, he was not returning calls to reporters. So I had to go knock on his door.
     Rick, on the phone, invited me into his foyer and disappeared around the corner to complete the call. When he came back, he was cordial enough, but obviously he didn't appreciate my invasion of his privacy. 
     "It’s Easter Sunday, for goodness’ sake," he said. "What kind of Christian are you?"
     What could I say?
     It was a good question, even if he didn't mean it that way.
     I mulled that for a while and eventually decided I would no longer be the kind of Christian who chased coaches and recruits for a living. Through a series of events marked by the fingerprints of God, by the next Easter I had found my calling in Boone and was safely out of the newspaper business.
     Thanks, Rick, for the best career advice I ever got.
     Have a blessed Resurrection Day, everybody.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meet the biggest 'Mouth' in basketball

    Let's have a pickup basketball game.
    I'll take players who went to high school in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. You can have the whole rest of the country.
    I've got Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Ty Lawson, and Brandon Jennings. That's 101 points per game in the NBA this year, plus two of the league's four leaders in assists.
    They all come from that overflowing fountain of hoops at the mouth of Wilson CreekOak Hill Academy. 
    Mouth of Wilson is only an hour's drive from Boone, so several of us made the trip Monday night to experience Oak Hill basketball in person. Courtside seats cost just $5, where you can get splashed by the sweat of future millionaires who are still playing for the joy of the game.
    So here we are deep in Appalachia, 12 miles from the nearest traffic light, sitting in a 300-seat gym, listening to a student play the national anthem on a clarinet, and watching the No. 1 high school basketball team in the country. Eight national championship banners adorn the far wall. Behind the basket on the left hang the college jerseys of dozens of Oak Hill graduates, including several who won national championships at Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Maryland.
The jerseys behind the basket represent a Who's Who of college basketball.
The Warriors have lost only once in this gym in the last 18 years.

     In a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide ... What? Your local high school basketball team doesn't have its own media guide? 
     As I was saying, in a nice effort to keep things in perspective, the media guide includes this message from Oak Hill president Dr. Michael Groves: "Basketball is one of the things we do well at Oak Hill, but it is not what we do best." 
     Unlike many of the small private schools and random upstarts that have come to dominate national high school basketball in recent years, Oak Hill's roots are deep and humble. In fact, the academy is actually 13 years older than the game itself. 
     Oak Hill was founded in 1878 by Baptist churches in the New River Valley who were concerned about the lack of educational opportunities following the Civil War. It has become a boarding school serving 150 students and "offering a highly structured curriculum that focuses on accountability and self-discipline." 
     We can all admire the values Oak Hill embraces in its educational philosophy:
1. Deep down inside, all children are good.
2. Regardless of academic ability, every child is capable of success.
3. All children would rather succeed than fail.
4. Once a child gets a taste of success, he or she will want more.
     Those noble standards apply to the basketball team, tooexcept that we're not talking about children anymore. These are full-grown blue-chip student-athletes who have already been through the meat market of college recruiting. They've come from seven states and two other countries, leaving behind their families, friends, and hometowns to spend their final one to three years of high school here on "The Hill," polishing their college credentials. 
     The team flies to games all over the country. Last weekend, they played in a Nike tournament in San Diego. This coming weekend, they're off to Nebraska. In between, they have three home games scheduled, including the one we're watching against Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, a Chattanooga school that's no older than its seniors. Hamilton Heights has only 75 students but has attracted basketball players from Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean.
     The game is close for most of the first half, but Oak Hill's talent is overwhelming. Dwayne Bacon, a sculpted 6-foot-6 Florida State recruit, is Oak Hill's highest-scoring player since the aforementioned Brandon Jennings, who was a first-round NBA draft pick one year after he graduated from Oak Hill. Daniel Giddens, a 6-10 Ohio State signee from Georgia, rebounds relentlessly and dunks acrobatically. Andrew Fleming, a 6-5 Iowa recruit from Tennessee, drains three-pointers. Jennings' half-brother, 5-11 whirlwind Terrence Phillips, is headed to Missouri. 
     Two juniors, 6-7 Joe Hampton and 6-5 Joshua Reaves, are already committed to Penn State. Looking at Hampton's 280-pound physique, you may think it's a shame Oak Hill doesn't play football.
     Oak Hill's rotation also includes players standing 7-0, 6-9, and 6-7.
     Hamilton Heights has several college-caliber players, too, but they don't have a chance. Nobody does in Turner Gymnasium, where the Warriors have lost just once in the last 18 years. Oak Hill dominates the second half, wins 83-55, and raises its record to 38-0.
     The Warriors can't lose for winning. If you saw them lose on ESPN last month in Memphis, you need to know that their opponent used an ineligible player, so Oak Hill won by forfeit and regained its undefeated record.
     Presiding over this juggernaut is Coach Steve Smith, an Asbury College graduate whose 30-year record is 973-63, surpassing his golf buddy Dean Smith on the list of most victories by coaches named Smith. After Dean died this past weekend, USA Today called Steve for his memories. It's worth reading
     The fact that he's accomplished all this at Oak Hill instead of some city school says a lot about how the high school basketball landscape has changed in the 30 years since USA Today launched its Super 25 national rankings and shoe companies got their foot in the door. If you grew up with the notion that you could watch the rise of a basketball star at your local high school, you're dating yourself. Nowadays, it's rare for elite players to finish their careers at the schools where they grew up. Instead, they matriculate to places like Oak Hill.
     Mouth of Wilson is not a townjust a post office a couple of miles from campus. There's not even a crossroadsjust a couple of abandoned country stores at the T intersection where Highway 16 from Jefferson, North Carolina, intersects Highway 58 between Galax and Damascus, Virginia. The "mouth of Wilson" denotes the little delta where Wilson Creek feeds into the New River. 
     If you're hungry for a McDonald's, there are none within 20 miles of Oak Hill, except for the 28 McDonald's All-Americans during Coach Smith's tenure. (Want fries with that? Down the river from Mouth of Wilson, there is a little town named Fries, but they don't have a McDonald's either.) 
     If you're thirsty for a draft, you may not be able to buy one in Grayson County, but at halftime you can step out of the stands and shoot at the same hoops as 28 NBA draftees have done.
     If you're serious about basketball, Oak Hill should be on your bucket list. 


From the Mouth of Wilson to the Big Apple

     Oak Hill pushed its record to 47-0 before losing to Montverde, Florida, 70-61, in the national championship game April 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
     Montverde is a 112-year-old private school west of Orlando that has now won three consecutive national championships. Last year's star player, D'Angelo Russell, made first-team All-America as a freshman at Ohio State. This year's star, Ben Simmons, is headed to LSU. He scored 20 points against Oak Hill and forced Giddens, to foul out.
     It wasn't a total lost weekend for Oak Hill. One of its graduates won a national championship: Quin Cook with Duke. That's one more champion's jersey for the gym wall back in Mouth of Wilson.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dean Smith and the Carolina Way

     Dean Smith was the reason I wanted to go to the University of North Carolina. Then Chapel Hill wait-listed me, Missouri accepted me, and I practiced journalism on coach Norm Stewart instead.
     Stormin' Norman probably got tired of my Carolina  perspective, but all I knew about basketball I learned from watching Dean Smith on the ACC game of the week. I admired the ways he innovated and integrated, how he used the four corners and the blue team, and how everything fit so neatly, from those V-neck jerseys to the almost-perfect graduation rate. I was naive, and it was the Carolina way!
    As far as I was concerned, Dean Smith invented basketball. In reality, he was only two generations removed from the creationhe learned the game from Phog Allen, who learned it from Dr. James Naismith.
     I am thankful that I had the opportunity to cover ACC basketball during Coach Smith's last five seasons, including the infamous feud with Clemson's Rick Barnes that climaxed with their courtside confrontation at the 1995 ACC tournament. 
     If you're looking at Coach Smith from the viewpoint of Clemson or ABC (Anybody But Carolina), I recommend this 2013 interview with Seth Davis, where Barnes goes into detail about their relationship and says that he wishes he had handled things differently.
     Two episodes from that interview reveal a lot:
     Reporters knew Coach Smith as the master of the backhanded compliment. When ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan summoned both coaches to his home in 1995 to work out a truce, Smith told Barnes, "You're the best coach I've ever coached against that can teach guys to foul without getting caught."
     "Really?" Rick said. "You think I'm that good? Tell you what, I'll write a book on what we do if you write the foreword."
     Two years later, in October 1997, the Barnes were at home in Clemson when the news broke that Smith was retiring. His 9-year-old daughter Carley asked, "Daddy, why did he quit?"
     "I told her I don't really know. I told her how great he was, and what he meant to me growing up in North Carolina. My wife told her, 'Why don't you write him a letter?' 
     "She wrote him a letter. And he wrote back a great letter and said wonderful things about me. He said great things."
     Barnes went on to say how much he respected Smith as a coach and as a competitor who did things the right way.
     You didn't have to be Rick Barnes' little girl to get a letter from Coach Smith. I found this out last March when I saw classic stories about Coach Smith by John Feinstein and Tommy Tomlinson and emailed them to a co-worker who graduated from North Carolina and is about the same age as Barnes' daughter. "You probably don't remember Coach Smith," I said.
     Oh, was I wrong! The next day, Hope surprised me by bringing in a package of Dean Smith treasures. As a little girl, she had written him letters, and Coach had responded to each one. In his last years of coaching, he didn't need to be cultivating little fans, but he did it anyway.
     It was the Dean Smith way. He would have called it the Carolina way. 
     If there was any mercy in his memory-clouding illness, at least Coach Smith was spared from seeing the Tar Heels tailspin from the Carolina way to the Carolina wayward. 
     None of that matters anymore. The Bible says heaven is a city built foursquare. Make yourself at home, Coach.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Extra! Extra! Read all about Stoneman's Raid

     I've written thousands of stories over the past 40 years, but none has fascinated me quite like Stoneman's Raidthe events in my backyard that hastened the end of the Civil War. I've launched a new blog, The Stoneman Gazette, to share the daily details of what happened 150 years ago.
      Newspapers and armies don't take a day off, and it will be a challenge to see if I can keep up, but I intend to post a fresh story or two every day through May 3. You're welcome to read along.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Turning 60 and claiming my consecration discount

Celebrating January birthdays in the Samaritan's Purse communications department: Ron Pettit, Randy Bishop, blinking me, and Nora Gaylord.
     As of Sunday, January 18, Kevin Costner and I became consecration bargains. It's our 60th birthday. 
     The Bible says in Leviticus 27 that a man's consecration vow costs 50 shekels from age 20 to 60, but only 15 shekels after he turns 60. More on that in a moment. 
     When I reach milestones in my life, I like to look for corresponding landmarks in the Bible. 
     When Jesus was about thirty, he began his public ministry by turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. On my 30th birthday, my family treated me like an old man and made me ride a wheelchair into a McDonald's birthday party in Greenville.
     Forty years was the time Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Later, "the country was quiet for forty years in the days of Gideon"a refreshing thought on godly leadership from Judges 8:28. I spent my 40th birthday reporting from Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum, where Bob Sura of Florida State hit a last-second three-pointer to beat Rick Barnes' "Slab Five," the upstarts who had won at Duke the week before and driven 47-year-old Coach K into a sabbatical. 
       I turned 50 in Sri Lanka, on assignment with Samaritan's Purse following the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami. During that trip I found this nugget in Numbers 8:25: "and at the age of fifty years they must cease performing this work, and they shall work no more." That verse refers specifically to Levites, not journalists, but it does challenge anyone who says retirement is not in the Bible.
     Now I'm 60 and thinking more about consecration than celebration. I'm not even sure what a consecration vow involves, and I'm sure I've never paid for it. I'm not wrapped up in the old-covenant laws of Leviticus, which forbid barbecue and bacon, among other things. I believe that's covered in the new covenant of Jesus, who has fulfilled the law and pre-paid for my consecration, among other things.
     Consecrated means set apart, or made pure. It doesn't come cheap—under either covenant. Assuming the shekel of the sanctuary equaled a typical month's wages, my consecration vow at 59 would cost over four years of earnings. Since turning 60, I get a 35-month senior citizen discount.
     One other Bible passage mentions sixty years. 1 Timothy 5:9 says, "Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man."
     It's good to know Mary will need me around for at least a little while longer. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Buckeye bracket-buster: Injustice for a good cause

     The college football playoff turned out almost exactly as I predicted and even better than I hoped.
     No, I didn't foresee The Ohio State University's championship, with all its rich story lines and its 245-pound definite article.
     I didn't care who won, and I watched anyway. That's progress. What intrigued me more than the teams was the way the entire playoff process played outa process designed to fail and yet destined to give us something bigger and better.
     Raise your hand if you ever thought we could actually fit five conference champions into a four-team bracket. Here, have a buckeyeit will kill you if you try to swallow it. Seriously. 
     Smaller colleges with half the manpower have been thriving in 16-team playoffs for decades, but this is the first year the big boys have dared to play more than one post-season game. 
     And here's what just happened: 
     1. Rankings became irrelevant. All the experts on the selection committeeincluding Peyton Manning's dad, Andrew Luck's dad, and George Bush's secretary of stateturned out to be no wiser than sportswriters or computers when it comes to judging the relative merits of college football teams. Yes, they saw through undefeated Florida State. We all did. But in their expertise, they judged Alabama to be the best team. Their lowest-ranked team won it all. And we trust them to tell us that the next-best team did not deserve a shot? 
     2. Bowls will never be the same. 
Bowls used to stand in the way of playoffs. Today, I'd wager that the rest of the bowls in the "New Year's Six" rotation (Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, and Peach) would sell their souls for the opportunity to be quarterfinal playoffs next year. The reason? The three playoff games on ESPN were the highest-rated programs in the history of cable television. The bowls that mattered drew audiences three or four times larger than the bowls that didn't. That's money left on the table. The playoffs barely had room for the Buckeyes, but bowls always have room for an extra buck. And TV is just part of the equation. Don't get me started about the empty upper deck at the Orange Bowl. The people have spoken: We'd rather watch games that count; games that are part of a greater drama.
     3. Separation of church and playoff. The committee ought to be thankful for the waffling Big 12 and private schools Texas Christian and Baylor, who lack political clout and have been raised to accept rejection by turning the other cheek. But what if Texas had been the alternative instead of Texas Christian? What if you took Christian out of TCU's name, dressed the Froghorned talent in Longhorn uniforms, called them Texas, and stacked them up against Ohio State. Now, that last selection becomes a lot more squirmish. Who do you want to snub: Texas with one loss to Baylor, or Ohio State with one loss to Virginia Tech? Either way, you face the wrath of a half million powerful alumni. Why not make everybody happy with a play-in game?
    4. Expanded playoffs will be here sooner rather than later. It won't take 12 years, like it did with the Bowl Championship Series. That's the hidden genius of the four-team playoff. It came with injustice built in, a flaw that demands to be corrected by expansion. College presidents who would never vote for an eight-team playoff now realize they will have to accept it. Whatever the future playoffs look like, they absolutely have to include the champions of the so-called "power five" conferences. The easy solution would be an eight-team playoff, including three at-large teams. Sixteen is not impractical, especially if you play the first round on campus. The silent majority in NCAA Division I already have a 24-team football tournament, for goodness' sake. Shorten the regular season to 10 or 11 games, add a cash-cow exhibition game in the spring, and make it happen. 
    We are making progress. Here it is just three weeks before national signing day, and we're still talking about actual games rather than descending into what my friend Kerry Capps calls "recruiting porn." Another weekend of real live college football in January wouldn't hurt anybody.