Thursday, April 29, 2010

What a Difference One Year Makes at UNO

One year ago, UNO took a chance on Trev Alberts, and oh, what a difference one year makes.  At the time, UNO was hiring their fourth athletic director this decade.  The athletic department was seemingly rudderless and still paralyzed from the mismanagement of Nancy Belck and Jim Buck.

Now look at the Mavs:
  • Mike Kemp stepped aside and Dean Blais, who won two national championships with North Dakota is now the head coach.
  • UNO drew a crowd of 13,417 to a game against Ohio State and ranked fourth nationally in attendance.
  • UNO switched conferences, leaving the CCHA for the WCHA.
  • UNO made a strong push in February to get into NCAA tournament contention, featuring a sweep of Michigan, followed by upsets of #1 Miami and top-ten Bemidji State.
  • And there is the expectation that sometime in the next few weeks, UNO will announce plans to build their own facility somewhere near Ak-Sar-Ben.
Not bad for a guy with no previous experience in athletics administration; certainly the people who forecast "an instant death blow" to UNO hockey were proven wrong.  But there is much more remaining to be done. For starters, not having a mid-season swoon that effectively scuttled UNO's chances to make noise in March. UNO's marketing, while improved, still needs to work to restore UNO hockey's place in the local sports market.  Game presentation improved, even if the answer this season was to fire the band rather than work with the Music department to create a true pep band.  (Hint: Wisconsin could teach UNO a thing or two about pep bands.)

UNO is supposedly getting close to announcing plans for a new hockey arena, likely around Chili Greens.  I'm sure the plans are just about finished and are out for approvals at this point, but if they aren't finalized, here are a few thoughts.
  • Size should be more than 8,000 initially, and preferably closer to 10,000.  If the funding isn't there to do 10,000, then there should be a plan to expand to that point.  I understand the desire to build something more intimate, but don't undersell this market.  UNO sold out 8314 seats initially; if you believe Dean Blais is going to do something special, I don't see why you would build anything smaller than that.
  • Student section should be located directly behind the visiting goalie for two periods. Ensure there is plenty of room for students, and this section should have bleachers and general admission seating.  Put the band there as well.  You want students to stand, cheer, and harass the goalie.  That is a GOOD thing, mind you.
  • A low metal ceiling optimized to echo crowd noise. Omaha has the Qwest Center for concerts; we don't need a second arena with sound baffling.
  • In all likelihood, the name of the building will go to a donor or local business who contributes a large sum of money to build it.  That's fine, and to be expected in today's world. But the building should pay homage to the place where Omaha's hockey tradition flourished.  The Omaha Knights started the tradition, and the Omaha Lancers restored when they moved to the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.  The Coliseum is but a memory now, but the name should live on.  UNO should not build an "Arena" or an antiseptic "Center", but rather a 21st Century "Coliseum", especially when it's so close to the original Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.
It's been quite a year for UNO, and frankly, I have every expectation that the next year could be even better.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tuesday Night Beer: The Mayor Returns to Ames

Iowa State's hiring of Fred Hoiberg to replace Greg McDermott might be so crazy it just might work. The main knock on Hoiberg is his total lack of coaching experience. Big concern? Absolutely. But lack of experience does not ensure failure, just merely raises a big concern. It all revolves around how Hoiberg builds his staff to address his lack of experience. One year ago, some people laughed at the idea of Trev Alberts jumping from television into the athletic director's chair at UNO. It only took two months for people to stop laughing.

ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard got another mulligan with his coaching hires. After misfiring with Gene Chizek, he went for someone who knew and loved the state of Iowa in Paul Rhodes. Most people reacted with skepticism, but leading the Cyclones to a bowl game last season certainly validated Pollard's decision. Now, Pollard reached deep to bring Hoiberg back to Ames.  Crazy? Yes. But it's not as big of a reach as you might think. He's vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, in charge of scouting, the salary cap, and the draft. So he's got the administrative experience.

The big thing he brings is instant credibility with fans from playing eight years in Ames as "the Mayor".  That will buy him time with fans and boosters who haven't had much to celebrate in basketball since Larry Eustachy popped the top on a few Natty Lights.  They'll be more patient with Hoiberg than any other candidate.

But even that goodwill won't matter if Hoiberg doesn't eventually win.  Brandon Vogel points out the aura of the "dream job" and whether Bo Pelini might covet the Ohio State job down the line when Jim Tressel finally steps down. Right now, Pelini is riding high in the state of Nebraska on the basis of three years of success at Nebraska.  (Yes, I'm counting the 2003 defense along with the 2008-09 seasons.) But how much slack will Husker fans give him if Nebraska has an off year?  Look at how Briejay fan turned on Dana Altman; the common response this weekend from the Hilltop wasn't so much sadness as it was relief.

One of the surprises of the NFL draft to me was that Missouri wide receiver Danario Alexander went undrafted. Turns out that I shouldn't have been so surprised; Alexander underwent knee surgery once again after injuring cartilage in Senior Bowl practices. I'm sure that knee injury scared NFL front offices, but Alexander's productivity on the field should ensure he'll get a chance if and when he's cleared to play.

With Ndamukong Suh and Phillip Dillard being drafted last weekend, it's time to close the book on the 2005 Husker recruiting class.  Remember that hyped class?  Five players from that group of 30 were drafted (Zack Bowman, Cody Glenn, and Matt Slauson were the others).  Not bad, you say?  Well, let's put it in perspective.  Nebraska's 2002 recruiting class (you know, that #40 rated class that was used as an excuse to fire Frank Solich) had 4 players out of 18 drafted -- including two first-rounders (Adam Carriker and Fabian Washington).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Altman Flees the Bird Cage for the Duck Blind

After a month-long coaching search that seems almost Pederson-esque in it's length and futility, Oregon finally found a new basketball coach:  Creighton's Dana Altman.  Altman finally said yes after Missouri's Mike Anderson, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, and Butler's Brad Stevens all said no to the Nike money.

Of course, there is always the chance that Altman could change his mind again.  (Does Oregon make their coaches do duck calls?)

If this deal closes (and by all accounts, it has), what does it mean for Creighton hoops? Let's remember where Creighton basketball was prior to Dana Altman.  Under Rick Johnson, the Jays played in front of a 2/3rds empty Civic Auditorium.  (Wait a minute...isn't that the way Dana Altman left Creighton?) Nebraska basketball had taken the mindset of the local sports fan.  It wasn't until Nebraska basketball and UNO hockey hit the skids about eight years ago that Creighton reemerged from it's funk and captured the mindset of the Omaha sports market.  Interest exploded, and the team that averaged 5,000 fans a game started selling out the Qwest Center. All thanks to Altman and a team that regularly won the Missouri Valley Conference and secured the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Their highlight: Terrell Taylor's three pointer upsetting Florida in the 2002 NCAA tournament.

After the 2007 Arkansas scare, things never were the same for Altman at Creighton. 2 NIT berths and then a CIT bid led many BrieJay fans to turn on the coach that made Creighton basketball relevant locally, let alone nationally.

So where does Creighton go? If history repeats itself, Bruce Rasmussen will look once again for an unappreciated Big XII coach.  Altman wasn't Lon Krueger and wasn't appreciated in Manhattan, so he left Kansas State for Creighton in 1994.  Who fits that pattern?  Iowa State's Greg McDermott, who was successful at Northern Iowa previously. (H/T: CloneChronicles)

But the real question to me is... how does BrieJay fan react to this? They turned their back on the team during the CIT last month, leaving only the diehards to half-fill the Civic. Will they jump off the bandwagon?

My guess is that the BrieJay fan will stay on the bandwagon long enough to abscond with all the tickets to the NCAA basketball tournament in 2012.  After that...all bets are off. The pressure is on Bruce Rasmussen to hit another home run with his replacement hire.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sarpy County Boondoggle Costs Already up 28%

The bids for the new Sarpy County baseball stadium are in, and the bids to build the BFE Boondoggle are coming in $6 million more than anticipated. So now scratch that $26 million to build a $20 million stadium; it's now going to be $32 million. But since the Royals have already signed off on their's the people of Sarpy County on the hook for the increased cost.

The only surprise to me is how low the overrun is, though it's still early in the process.  Two years ago, the going rate for a AAA ballpark was $40 to $50 million, so it's easy to understand how unrealistic the original budget was. Yes, the severe recession has likely lowered costs somewhat, but even if that reduced costs 20%, this stadium would be coming in below the bottom of the usual cost of a stadium.

So how is Sarpy County keeping the costs low? Simple...this stadium is being built as cheaply as possible. Here's the eye-opening quote by Sarpy County attorney Lee Polikov:
“We are not building a practice facility. We still need to have a first base, a second base, a third base. Bathrooms. Walls to go over for home runs. There is only so much you can cut.”
Translation: they've already cut just about every extra or nicety in the stadium just to get the original estimate down to $20 million.  And now that the cost is up, there isn't much that they can omit or scale back further. Gravel parking perhaps? Remove light towers and require the Royals to play all day games? Skip the sprinkler system and hope it rains? Perhaps negotiate with the City of Omaha to buy one of the old scoreboards from Rosenblatt?

Oh...and that other stadium downtown? It's coming in on schedule and on budget.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Brandon Kinnie Stars in Husker Spring Game

I'm sure most fans left Memorial Stadium buzzing about Taylor Martinez, but for my money, Brandon Kinnie's touchdown catch was the play of the day today. Only catch of the day, mind you...but it was the play of the day in my book. On third and 16, Martinez connected with Kinnie for a first down ... and then some. Rickey Thenarse, Alfonzo Dennard, and Austin Cassidy each tried to wrap up Kinnie, but Kinnie made like the Energizer Bunny and kept going all the way into the end zone.  It's a play that makes you say "wow!"...but was it "wow bad" for the defense or "wow good" for Kinnie. My initial take is "wow good" for Kinnie, who came on strong late last season.

Martinez sure got my attention early on with some nifty scrambles, with speed and elusiveness creating running room where little existed. But some of his decision making on throws left much to be desired.  Several passes were thrown into coverage and tipped up.  One was intercepted by Thenarse, another was a reception by Austin Jones. All in all, not a bad debut for Martinez. His passing game is something that can be worked on; his God-given physical talent is definitely intriguing going into this next season. Cody Green showed better poise on the field today, and a powerful arm.  He connected deep with Niles Paul (underthrowing it like Zac Lee did late last season, which makes me wonder if Paul has a little extra burst than his quarterbacks realize) and Will Henry (who seems to be finally shaking off Bill Callahan's playbook). I'm not sure either quarterback jumped ahead of Zac Lee today, but obviously the experience helps them.

Another star of the day in my eye was Rex Burkhead, who repeatedly broke tackles and gained positive yardage. But as the second quarter came to an end, the top players went to the sidelines and in came the reserves. Kyler Reed made some nice catches, and K.C. Hyland saved LaTravis Washington's bacon a couple of times with some reaches. The Huskers could have used him against Texas Tech last season.

I admit I didn't notice much about the defense today; my only excuse was explaining things to my three-year old daughter and making sure she was having a good time. My initial take is that Bo Pelini probably won't be terribly pleased with the performance of the defense, but he also kept things pretty generic and didn't put his defenders into the best positions.

All in all, it was a wonderful day.  Ndamukong Suh awed the crowd once again by announcing a $2 million donation to the athletic department before even being drafted by the NFL. (That Nike endorsement deal must have been pretty good.)  Oh, and $600 thousand to UNL to endow a scholarship on top of that.  Nice.  It'll be quite a day when #93 goes up on the North end zone skyboxes, and it's only a matter of time before #93 is officially retired.

Great to see so many former Huskers on the sidelines interacting with the fans. I saw Maurice Purify sign autograph after autograph before halftime.  Carl Nicks was working the crowd as well, and I even spotted former Husker assistant George Darlington on the field as well.

Biggest downer of the day was watching former Husker announcer Adrian Fiala making his way to the stadium.  After fifteen years of announcing Husker games, it had to be difficult for him to head to the stadium knowing he wasn't going to be part of the broadcast, and it showed in his eyes.  Glad to see him introduced and acknowledged on the field.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The UFL in Omaha ... and the Bills Mount on the BFE Boondoggle

At a press conference scheduled for Thursday morning, Omaha city officials will announce that a UFL franchise will begin play this fall, most likely at Rosenblatt Stadium this season and moving to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011.  The UFL is an upstart professional football league that plays in the fall and is trying to become a developmental league for the NFL. In fact, ProFootballTalk reported last month that the NFL and the UFL were working on a formal agreement.

Last year, most UFL games were played on Thursday nights, with many televised on Versus and HDNet. This year, the plan is to play them on Fridays and Saturdays with a 10 game schedule with 6 teams.  The current UFL franchises are Orlando, Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Hartford.  Omaha will be the fifth, and the sixth will likely be Salt Lake City, Austin, or San Antonio.

Good news for Omaha? Most definitely. There is a small amount of prestige in being grouped in with the likes of Orlando, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio. It fills five dates at the new downtown stadium.

But will it work in Omaha? I've long felt that Arena Football would work in Omaha...but that league folded. This might be better, especially if they get an agreement with the NFL. Entice some former Huskers to play on the local team (Cory Ross was the leading rusher in the UFL last season for Sacramento.), and you've got an instant draw.  With one caveat.

Around these parts, Husker football is king. If the UFL tries to schedule a game in Omaha on a Saturday and the Huskers are playing that day, forget about it.  Friday night, as has been proposed? Maybe, but the Friday night sports lineup in Omaha is busy in the fall.  High school football in September and October. UNO hockey starts up in October.  And in November, it's going to be tough to get large crowds to sit outside at night in the cold.  My suggestion? Play the games in Omaha on Sunday afternoons.  Better weather encourages fans and especially families to come.  No conflicts locally.  Yes, some NFL fans may stay home to watch games on TV, but we're 200 miles from Kansas City, 400 from Minneapolis, and 500 from Denver and Chicago. Omaha loves football, but doesn't necessarily love an NFL team. This season, two Husker bye weeks in early October create a nice little opening for the UFL locally to try a Saturday game if they want to take a chance. In markets like Sacramento with proximity to the Raiders and 49ers, Sunday afternoons would be suicide. But in Omaha, Sunday afternoons are the best option.

Ticket prices for the Las Vegas franchise seem reasonable, with season tickets ranging from $60 to $120 for a five game schedule.  $12 to $24 a game for five games sounds like a good deal to me. Could it work? The devil is in the details, but I think it's got a chance here.  I think it's a win-win situation for Omaha; it adds entertainment to Omaha, adds a little positive PR for the city, and it fills more dates at the new ballpark.

Speaking of ballparks, cost overruns for the BFE Ballpark have forced Sarpy County to shift the remaining legal work for the Sarpy County Boondoggle to the county attorney's office.  Kermit Brashear's firm originally estimated that his fees would top out at around $500,000, but the bill has now reached just shy of $1 million. Meanwhile, the county still doesn't have a finalized deal with Weitz Company, who's building the stadium, and doesn't have an agreement for naming rights.  And, of course, there's that little issue of not having a plan to pay for it. Details, details.  But hey, I'm told that the stadium is going to look nice with the skyline of Omaha off in the distance. (Still a local call!)

Monday, April 12, 2010

April in Nebraska Means Football

Just because I haven't blogged about spring football doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it.  (Over at CornNation, I did suggest last month that I wasn't focusing on anything going in.) And right now, I'm still approaching it like a sponge...just going to wait and see what emerges.

The Lincoln Journal-Star had a very interesting practice report today.  Nebraska now has enough depth to run dual practice stations, a practice that Bill Callahan scuttled. The downside is that coaches aren't observing every player during these sessions since they have to split the squad.  The upside is that players are getting in twice the reps in practice, and that's good news for player development. We know how badly that went during the Callahan period, so reversing that trend is a good thing.

Cody Green wearing a green practice jersey? Hopefully it's true that he'll be ready for contact on Saturday. I'd like to see every quarterback (except for Kody Spano, who's still recovering from a second ACL tear) showing us both their running and throwing. And yes, I'm intrigued to see what Taylor Martinez can do.

Sadly, we won't see Jemarcus Hardrick this weekend either, though I'm not sure how much of a read I can get from a scrimmage.

I'm also starting to get a little curious about the second group of receivers. I'm a big fan of Brandon Kinnie and Niles Paul...but I want to see someone else emerge. Is it going to be Curenski Gilleylen, who looked so good in September, so awful in October, invisible in November, and fumblefooted in the Holiday Bowl? What about Antonio Bell, who looked pretty good last spring? Niles Paul dropped the name of Will Henry today.  And Joe Brokemeier is raising eyebrows this spring.

On defense, I'm curious to see who emerges at linebacker. I assume Will Compton will be one guy...but with only one other linebacker in the new Peso personnel package, there are three candidates.  Sean Fisher, who was the odd man out last fall. Eric Martin, who was dynamic on kickoff coverage last season. And now, Alonzo Whaley's name is coming up as well.

Like I said, I'm curious to see who emerges. I'm not going in with any expectations, just want to see who catches my eye.  The weather forecast is looking great at this point; mid-60's and sunny. But don't make those wardrobe decisions just yet; the KSHB weather team in Kansas City (they've done an outstanding job with long-term forecasts) show a stalled front (with showers) just south of Lincoln on Friday...which means you just never know what might happen.

Springtime in Nebraska. After last winter, we thought it might never arrive.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Storybook Ending at the Masters

It was a storybook ending at the Masters today, with Phil Mickelson winning his third green jacket with his ailing wife managing to get out of bed to watch the conclusion. Sadly, that great story was buried behind the TMZ-fueled obsession with Tiger Woods for much of the weekend. ESPN dropped into the gutter in their pre-Masters coverage last week, running a countdown clock to his tee time and live coverage of him on the practice tee.

I understand Woods is the best golfer in the game. I get that.  But Woods' problems are self inflicted, then exacerbated by the people and companies he associated with.  Some abandoned him, others gave him bad advice.  Others, such as Nike, try to make a buck of it. Sadly, Stephen Colbert mocking is more applicable than twisting Earl Woods' comments about his wife.
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Truth be told, I was impressed by the way Tiger Woods shook off five months of inactivity to be in contention midway through the opening round. Like I said, he's the #1 golfer in the world for a reason.

But even without Woods in contention, this was a great tournament with great story lines. You had Fred Couples in contention at age 50.  60 year old Tom Watson on the leaderboard as well before fading over the weekend, but still finishing 18th. Yet, I'm sure we'll hear people who'll say that they turned off the Masters as Woods faded today, or wouldn't have paid attention if Woods hadn't made his comeback.

And all I can say is... WTF?

Did you turn your TV off when Colt McCoy left the BCS National Championship game with an injury?  Did you ignore the Final Four when Kansas and Kentucky were knocked out?  Of course not.  In fact, just the opposite.  The Final Four had higher ratings without the big names.

That doesn't mean Tiger Woods isn't interesting when he's playing well. Any great competitor adds drama when they in a battle. But the absence of the star doesn't lessen the competition.  Tiger Woods didn't create the Masters.  The Masters was The Masters before Woods won a green jacket, and it was The Masters before Woods was even born. It'll still be the Masters once Woods' retires.  The names in sports come and go, but the sport lives on.  Golf doesn't need Tiger Woods.

Heck, considering the shambles that Woods has made of his personal life, Woods probably needs golf more now, as it seems to be the one thing that's going right for him now, especially when you consider that he was in contention in a major without having played competitively in months.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Butler (Almost) Did It

If you're a sports fan, this week is perhaps the greatest week of the year.  NCAA Final Four.  Opening Day.  The Masters.  (Can't forget the NCAA Frozen Four as well!)  And tonight's national championship game between Duke and Butler did it justice, as it was a battle that'll be remembered for years to come, with that desperation three bouncing off the front rim as the horn sounded.  We'll be talking about this one tomorrow, that's for sure.  Certainly Twitter is all abuzz tonight with talk about the game; it's been a trending topic all day.

You know what WASN'T a trending topic?  Eldrick Woods and his press conference.  Props to his handlers for throwing him to the media on a day where he could announce just about anything and find himself on page three of the sports section. No matter how ESPN tried to titilate, real sports won out.  Albert Pujols and his double dinger day ensured that.  The "trending topics" bore that out as the action won out over the paparazzi. And with Billy Payne enforcing Augusta National's version of dictatorship, the only way Woods will be the focus the rest of the week is if his golf game is at it's best.

Tonight's National Championship basketball game also reinforces my belief that college football desperately needs a playoff.  Butler proved tonight they belonged in the championship game in basketball.  What about Boise State last season? The arguments against a playoff are quickly losing relevance.  Arguments about teams missing too much class time pale when the NCAA is proposing a 96 team basketball tournament where there is only one off day (a Monday) for a week and a half.  Using a formula based on the existing BCS formula to seed teams, with higher seeds playing home games, ensures that the regular season remains relevant.

The existing BCS system only works in those season where it's a clear-cut choice between two teams. Sometimes that works (1999 Florida State/Virginia Tech, 2002 Ohio State/Miami, or 2005 USC/Texas), but most of the time, it doesn't.  I've suggested it before, and I'll say it again.  Eight team playoff, played on college campuses on home fields where the home team earns the right to host, until the national title game, which is played on a neutral site.  Eight teams should bring in every valid candidate for a championship.  Everybody else can still go to a bowl game; bowl games only serve to provide programming for ESPN and provide teams with additional practice time.  A playoff doesn't change that.  ESPN still televises the NIT while March Madness is still underway; no reason why a college football playoff would change that.

Tonight, Butler shot a hole in the argument that one of the "mid-majors" can't compete with the big boys. Now more than ever, college football needs a playoff.