Sunday, January 30, 2011

Signing Day Means The Worst Week of the Year in College Football

Recruiting in college athletics to me is one of those necessary evils. At it's core, it's vital as the first step in making any program successful. That being said, what recruiting has evolved into is something that trivializes each sport and brings out the worst in many: coaches, players, boosters, and especially fans. This week is college football's signing day, and thus it's the worst week of the year in football.

A lot of people think I'm against recruiting, or that recruiting doesn't matter. That's blatantly untrue. It's important, and it's a significant day for coaching staffs, players, and their families. What doesn't matter is everything that is going to be written and discussed about these recruits.  Why?

Because, quite frankly, the people who are doing all of the commentary and analysis don't know what the hell they are talking about. Oh sure, they have their "measurables" and "star rankings"...but at it's core, it's simply a semi-educated guess by people who's only claim to success in this is the ability to get fans to pay to follow it.

In recent days, I've had the opportunity to reread Bruce Feldman's book "Meat Market", a look at Ed Orgeron and his 'Ole Miss staff as they evaluate and recruit players for their 2007 class. Orgeron reminds me a lot of Bill Callahan in that both men thought the key to success was to focus on recruiting more than the other aspects of the program. Both met similar fates: Callahan was fired in 2007, Orgeron in 2008. Since then, both schools have seen increased success as better coaches came in and took the foundations that both men built, and enjoyed success.

What I found interesting in Feldman's book was how Orgeron viewed the recruiting services. Generally, he scoffed at these services in private as deep down, the people doing the analysis don't have the expertise to do the job and they also don't take into account a lot of the other factors that affect how a player might do in college. Things like character, aptitude, desire, and heart. Coaches on the recruiting trail look for it, the services don't know how to analyze they don't.

What you end up with a seriously flawed system that generates a lot of noise without having much of any relevancy when it comes down to it. Look at Bill Callahan's touted 2005 class.  In hindsight, if it weren't for Ndamukong Suh, it likely would be much closer to Nebraska's worst recruiting class ever than it's best. But that's not what we were told in 2005. Next national champions. What Nebraska had been missing for years. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Fans were sold a bill of goods, and it wasn't until Callahan and his staff were exposed in October 2007, fans believed it all.

Remember Harrison Beck, who was supposed to be the prototype pro-style quarterback? Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, and failed at both Nebraska and North Carolina State before finding some success in Division II. Remember Marlon Lucky? He was supposed to be the "next Adrian Peterson"? Lucky turned out to be a decent third-down back who's most productive year was 2007 when he served as Sam Keller's bailout target in lieu of going through his progressions. Decent, yes...but not the game changer he had been hyped up to be.

That hype wasn't anything Lucky said or did, but rather fans and the so-called recruiting experts who made him out to be  more than he ever was. That pressure mounted on Lucky, who ended up in the hospital when he struggled to meet the unrealistic expectations that some placed on him.

So this week, those so-called experts will be all over the radio, television, print, and electronic media offering their assessment of where this upcoming group of Huskers rates. And frankly, I won't be paying them one second of attention. As always, I'm turning off the blog for signing week since there's absolutely nothing worth commenting on as the noise of the recruitniks drones on.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Texas Television Network Sets Ominous Tone for Future

I have mixed opinions on the the new Texas television network and it's relationship with ESPN. On one hand, I can't really begrudge Texas for finding a way to get more of their sports on television. If they and ESPN feel there is an unserved market for this, more power to them. More college sports on television is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

That being said, how this is all coming down is bad for college football, bad for fans and television subscribers (especially fans of other programs), and really bad for the Big XII. My number one issue goes to the part of the deal where Texas essentially reclaimed their rights to football games from the Big XII, and nobody raises an issue. In the past, when Nebraska games weren't claimed by FSN or ESPN/ABC (or Versus when they were involved), the game essentially reverted back to FSN for a pay-per-view broadcast. Now, that game reverts back to Texas and ESPN for the Longhorn Network.  Good news, in a way, for Texas fans who won't have to shell out $39.95 to watch the game.

My concern is that this won't be simply "one game" for very long. In fact, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman that they plan on broadcasting conference games on the ESPN-UT network. In fact, I expect that once the existing Big XII/ABC/ESPN deal expires after 2015, Texas will not participate in a new Big XII television deal, but instead will broker their own deal on their own.  The big games will still wind up on ABC and ESPN, and as long as the FSN/Big XII deal exists, many other games will end up there as well.  The big impact is that the money that ESPN/ABC would have bid on the 10 team Big XII package will be reduced by the money that Texas will receive directly.  That hurts the remaining schools in the Big XII.

Granted, schools like Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and possibly Missouri, can do similar things.  Chances are that they might still come out the same or slightly ahead of where they'd be otherwise.  But for schools like Kansas State and Iowa State, there's likely minimal interest in their national television rights except for those games against Texas and Oklahoma.  Bottom line is that this deal likely reduces the Big XII to a mere scheduling arrangement that exists to ensure that Texas and their fans don't have to travel as far for road games.

As for fans, whether you'll like the Texas network depends in large measure on how your cable or satellite provider decides to package it up.  In the state of Texas, there likely will be broad penetration on cable systems, meaning that it'll likely show up on your dial.  But at what cost? If you are a Texas fan, you probably could care less, since it'll be far cheaper than a single pay-per-view broadcast. But what if you are an A&M fan? How do you react to having your cable bill go up $1 a month, and the money is being funneled to Austin as a "Bevo surcharge" buried in your cable bill?

In an ideal situation, it would be a premium channel like HBO that you could choose to subscribe to, but that's not the way cable television works. Every cable provider selects packages of channels, and you have to subscribe to the entire package if you want only one of those channels.  That's why you pay for hundreds of channels when you only watch a handful of them. Personally, I'd love to see cable television revert to an ala carte pricing model, but I don't think it's going to happen.  I only watch maybe a third of the channels on my cable plan, and it's a pretty spartan lineup at that.  (And I like it, because I only pay $35 a month!) I get the basics that I want:  sports (ESPN, ESPN2, Classic, FSN, and Versus; and they just added the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network) and news (Weather Channel, CNN, MSNBC).  My wife likes the Food Network and a music channel, and every so often, we watch a comedy channel (i.e. TV Land, Cartoon Network, Fox News, or Disney).  But there's a bunch of channels that we never ever watch.  Still paying for them, though.  I've looked at upgrading to a digital or satellite plan, and right now, it's not worth the doubling of the price by the time I hook up the extra televisions in the house just to get a couple of niche networks.

So let's say I want the Texas network:  I might have to upgrade to a higher level plan and pay an extra $20 a month for a single channel.  Ouch.  Even worse: let's say I'm on a higher level plan, and now they bump the cost to add the Texas network...or worse, drop a channel that I actually want.  Or more likely what will happen is what happened with the Big Ten Network and NFL Network.  Cable companies balked, and even today, most homes don't receive these networks.

I guess what I'm saying is that if your cable/satellite bill is in the neighborhood of $100 or more and you want to watch Texas sports, you'll love this network.  Otherwise, there's a good chance you won't.  And the worst part is that this is going to multiply itself.  A&M, Oklahoma, and Missouri are already looking at this...which means that if I'm a cable company in Dallas, I might need to find room for three different networks.  Maybe more if Texas Tech or Baylor gets into the act.  And in this day and age where bandwidth is still limited, many cable companies are going to have to say no.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shatel Says Arena Progressing, But Not Assured

Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald tapped his sources for an update on the long-discussed UNO arena project, and the general consensus is that many think it's still going to happen, though nothing is finalized. Makes sense to me because I still don't think there is a consensus as to what UNO needs and whether UNO needs it's own arena for hockey.

Frankly, I'm not 100% sure that UNO needs it's own hockey arena, and that's something we might see in the next few weeks as the Mavs have home games the next three weekends following this weekend's split with #2 North Dakota. UNO has shown they are a national contender in hockey at this point, and when #9 Wisconsin comes to town in two weeks, UNO certainly could be in a position to break attendance records at the Qwest Center.

What I'm convinced UNO needs is a practice facility adjacent to the arena where they play the games. That doesn't completely eliminate the Qwest Center as a home, but I kind of doubt that MECA is interested in adding a practice rink to the Qwest Center.  The adjacency is a huge issue; imagine if the Husker football team had to haul all of their equipment around town to practice.  One afternoon, out at Seacrest; the next day, back at Memorial Stadium, and back and forth and round and round. Fortunately, that's not an issue for football, since they have dedicated football facilities.  Husker basketball has found that an issue; hence, the construction of the Hendricks facility in Lincoln adjacent to the Devaney Center.  (Though it's interesting that this is being built there rather than at the new Haymarket arena...)

So the question now becomes:  (a) what does UNO want to build and (b) who's going to pay for it?

It sounds like the 7,500 seat idea is dead, as well it should be.  That's thinking small time.  8,000-plus is the number that seems to have traction.  I'd suggest that the number should be higher still, possibly 9,000.  I even could go with 10,000.  (Any more, and UNO probably should focus their resources on getting practice ice downtown.)  I still believe UNO has room in this market to grow, though I also understand that you can't "build a church large enough to handle Christmas and Easter."  You have to build something that you can fill consistently, because it costs the same to build an empty seat as it does to build an occupied seat.

Who's going to pay for it?  Well, Shatel did find out that UNO isn't looking to government to build any new arena.  In this political and budgetary environment, there's no way that any government entity can be counted on to fund this type of endeavor. Not when local real estate experts predict it'll take another five to seven years before there's any development out at Sarpy County's BFE boondoggle. Not when much of our national, state, and local political debate centers over what government can, should, and must be paying for.

Shatel doesn't say who, but it sounds like that's where the hangup is.  The money people in Omaha are interested, but haven't committed to it yet.  So that's the holdup at this point.

Friday, January 21, 2011

UNO Stuns #2 North Dakota 8-4 with Second Period Barrage

UNO hockey's first trip to Ralph Englestad Arena proved to be a huge success, as the Mavs broke out early to a 2-0 first period lead over the second-ranked North Dakota Fighting Sioux. But UNO erupted for five straight goals in the second period to take a commanding 7-1 lead into the second intermission.  A third period fury got the Sioux within three goals until Joey Martin scored on a breakaway for a hat trick that iced the game.  So now in two of the most feared arenas in the WCHA, the Mavs are 3-0 after a sweep in October at Minnesota's Mariucci Arena.

Not only is UNO's 8 goals the most the Sioux have given up at Englestad since it opened 10 years ago, it's the most goals the Sioux allowed at home in nearly 19 years, dating back to 1992 when Minnesota scored 10.

Last week after only earning a single point against Bemidji State, it was easy to wonder if the Mavs had another run in them like last season. Tonight's game was an emphatic statement that the Mavs might just be ready for a run...and this season, that run could very well land them in serious contention in the postseason.

One thing is for sure, tonight won't sit well with the Sioux, who have to be stunned to get beaten this badly at home.  UNO is now 2-1 against North Dakota this season, so I expect the Sioux to give everything and anything in the series finale.  But if UNO can manage to pull of the sweep, they'll pull into a tie with the Sioux in the standings.

And with home games coming up the next three weekends at UNO, going on a hot streak is EXACTLY what the doctor ordered.

Monday, January 17, 2011

What to Make of Shawn Watson Staying

I freely admit it; I'm not on the "Fire Shawn Watson" bandwagon like a lot of people are. I do accept the excuses (injuries, lack of depth) that are offered up as a rebuttal to the "get rid of Watson" campaign that many wage. I'm not totally dismissing the arguments against Watson. He doesn't appear to have the ideal background for Bo Pelini's vision for the offense, and his results have been spotty at times. But for whatever reason, I think that Bo Pelini (and Tom Osborne, for what it's worth) don't seem to in a hurry to dump Watson. And frankly, those are the two gentlemen who have the most skin involved in this decision. They also likely have forgotten more about football than any of us will ever know.

I don't view the fact that Watson remains on the staff is any sort of indication of a lack of caring, a lack of concern, or a lack of backbone on the part of either of those men. If they really thought Watson was the issue, he wouldn't be on the staff anymore. That being said, I think Watson's candidacy for so many jobs this offseason is a sign that Watson is looking to move on, and yes, that might be at the encouragement of Pelini.

So will Watson be around by the time next fall rolls around? It's pure speculation on my part, and I don't have a solid feel for it, but I lean towards not. The one thing we know of is that Watson has been searching for other jobs, and at some point, one will open up. When Joe Moglia was announced as the next Omaha Nighthawks coach, I thought that this might be the opening for an amicable departure for Watson. But Moglia indicated that he's looking for pro experience in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald. Moglia's answer doesn't eliminate Watson, but it does make it doubtful he'd move up I-80.

I'm not bothered that Watson could return in 2011; I don't believe that's considering the results of the final month to be acceptable. And those results were just downright awful, no excuses. But there were some pretty good offensive performances in September and October. I sense from some fans that they simply want someone to be punished for what happened to the offense. I don't want someone punished, I want whatever went haywire to get resolved.  Maybe that's work in the training room. Maybe that's increased competition at certain positions, such as quarterback and possibly offensive tackle. Maybe it's just hitting the reset button and just starting over to reinstall this offensive system.

And yes, maybe in the end, it also means a new offensive coordinator for the Huskers.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

UNO Hockey's Midseason Swoon

Two months ago, the Mavs were flying high in college hockey circles after splitting a memorable series with North Dakota that had the Mavs flying high nationally. At that time, I said that I didn't think a swoon was imminent...and boy was I wrong.  Since that weekend, UNO is just 3-6-1...and reeling after this weekend's series against Bemidji State.  It seems a familiar story: UNO seems to be flying around against a lesser opponent but can't get the puck past the goalie, and they lose.  In fact, it's what I wrote in mid-January of last season. They went on a hot streak and worked their way into national contention with a 7-2-1 run over the next five weeks, complete with a road win over then-#1 Miami a week after sweeping Michigan.

The Mavs hockey team isn't playing the greatest right now, but I get the feeling they're playing better than they were a year ago at this time. They're down one of their better players with Terry Broadhurst still nursing a hand injury. They're facing #2 North Dakota, this time up there in Dean Blais' return to his old stomping grounds. I wouldn't say these are must-win games, but if UNO is going to make another run like last season, they can't wait much longer.

Looking at the Mavs this weekend, I saw a team that flew around the ice, but faced an opponent style that's the exact opposite and creates immense frustration. Best analogy I can think of is Princeton basketball under Pete Carril. UNO came out flying on Saturday night, but UNO's first goal of the game was waived off for some reason.  Breakdowns late in the second period allowed Bemidji State to take the lead, and while UNO was able to make the push to tie the game in the third period, they couldn't get the game winner despite several outstanding opportunities.... then another defensive breakdown led to the game winner in overtime.

Frustrated? Yep.  Disappointed?  Yep.  But not giving up hope.  Not yet.  There's still two months of hockey left to be played, and a lot of things still can happen.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

2010 BlogPoll Final Ballot

Monday's BCS title game wasn't even close to what I expected. Both offenses struggled to get going on a newly sodded field, and it became a defensive struggle most of the way. (What Einstein decided to put down a new field days before the biggest game of the year anyway???) Truth be told, I think it was less the defense and more two teams not playing well. I wouldn't call this one a classic or a great game, but it definitely had an exciting finish. As such, I'm only dropping Oregon to second. TCU goes undefeated, but frankly, I still think Oregon's the better team.
After all that, the rest of the Top Ten fell into place nicely. Then, we started to run into all the teams that lost. A lot of people thought Nebraska shouldn't be ranked after that horrible Holiday Bowl performance. That point disappeared when you had to stop and figure out who should be ranked ahead of them.  Hard to rank eight or nine win teams ahead of the Huskers, so I'm leaving them at #20.  I'll probably get a homer award for it.

That's the draft ballot.  Any feedback before it goes final in a day or so?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sunday Night Dessert: Husker Hoops Gets a W

I watched a bit of the Nebraska-Iowa State game last night, ugly as it was, especially in the second half. The Huskers blew a 12 point lead in the second half thanks to some really, really spotty defense at times and some absolutely horrific shooting. With under 10 seconds left, the Huskers discombobulated just like they did last season with a pass nearly going out of bounds.  Drake Beranek, replacing the injured Brandon Richardson, saved the ball but could only heave a desperation three-point shot as the shot clock was running out.  Iowa State grabbed the rebound, and set up for a final play, only to turn the ball over themselves.  Lance Jeter, who threw the errant pass, was fouled with under a second remaining, and after bricking the first free throw, nailed the free-throw to salvage the win.

It's a win, but it was an ugly, ugly win. It also was the type of game that Nebraska found a way to lose last season, so it's hard to complain too much about it. It's progress, but you'd like to see more of it.

Look out this week for the "Pelini/LSU" rumors to fire up in the next few days. I don't know how interested Pelini would be in returning to the SEC, but I honestly believe that up until November, Pelini and his family definitely preferred Lincoln. I don't know if what has happened since would change things. but it's hard to completely dismiss the notion of an SEC school making a strong bid for Pelini's services. Like it or not, the SEC seemingly has control at the top of the college football world (pending tomorrow night's championship game) and that might have some appeal to Pelini. But deep down, I think Pelini likes Nebraska and isn't likely to jump ship.

It's nice that Casey Martinez confirmed that his son will be returning to Lincoln and wants to compete and take on a leadership role on the team. But in some respects, that confirmation only serves to entrench the perception that Martinez isn't much of a leader. That message was one that Taylor should have issued himself, not his father. It's great to have parental involvement, but not to this degree.

This weekend, UNO hockey gets a second chance to restart their season against the opponent that began their recent slump:  Bemidji State. UNO was cruising along in the top five nationally, then got swept by the Beavers.  Since then, it's been up and down.  Now UNO returns home for the first time in over a month, with home games four out of the next six weekends.  Last season, this was the time when UNO cranked it up into high gear; I have this feeling it might happen again.

Finally, a comment about some of the recent current events. As a Millard North alum, I was concerned about all that happened at rival Millard South this week. It was nice to see how the school and the community rallied in support.  But it doesn't change what happened. A lot has been said nationally in the past week about the Constitution and the rights we all enjoy and hold so dear. But recent tragedies might not have happened if people took the responsibilities of their freedoms more seriously.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Monday Night Vodka: Still Trying to Recover from the Lost Weekend

This weekend's sports action required something stronger than beer.  I'm still trying to wrap my hands around what all went wrong, and it's just mind blowing what went wrong. It wasn't just the play of the Husker quarterbacks, but the entire offense. The thing that has me most despondent is that I simply don't know where to start (and please, I don't want to hear "fire Watson/Cotton/etc." either). The more I think about it, I don't think there is a single, simple solution to what went wrong.

I do know that this offense was putting up yards and points a plenty in the first half of the season (albeit against inferior competition), so I don't think it's all a loss at this point.  Somewhere along the line, things went haywire, and changes may have been made that were counterproductive. Seeing a few replays, it appears that there were open receivers, which is a sign of the solution. Problem is having a quarterback who's able to exploit that defense and an offensive line that could give that quarterback enough time to do just that.

When I say that I don't want to hear "fire Watson/Cotton/etc.", it's not that I'm endorsing those men. I just don't think you can make much of a campaign to do just that after a 10-4 season. I do think that deep down, Bo Pelini has an idea of where things went offtrack, and things will change.

Sometime over the next month, likely over at CornNation, I'll dig into what we've got returning and try to either find signs of optimism or despair over the future.

It wasn't just the Huskers that had me down in the dumps this New Years weekend.  UNO hockey got swept at Quinnipiac, losing both on late goals after the Mavs had fought back to tie the game in the third period. That led UNO to fall out of the top ten to 12th in the USCHO rankings.

One thing that did make me chuckle is watching Steve Pederson get a "vote of confidence" after his "character" and "integrity" selection flamed out in just 17 days.  The man just gets better and better.  It took him 40 days to hire Bill Callahan in 2003-04, but this time, it took less than that to hire and fire Mike Haywood. Maybe folks around Pitt will forgive Pederson for not forseeing this from Haywood, but I dare say that Pederson isn't getting much leash on the next hire. It seems that Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg is taking the lead away from Pederson on the next search.

Even Pitt color commentator Bill Fralic took on Pederson today
"This is all about Steve Pederson trying to make a mark, and he's made a black eye," Fralic said. "I would take a long, hard look at how we come to make this decision. I think there's a lot of people who have supported that program who are very disillusioned. I just don't know how we could be so wrong."
Even though the names and situations and details seem to change, this all has a very real sense of deja vu. Today, Cardiac Hill has the story of how Pederson neglected to talk to the remaining coaching staff in the three-plus weeks since he forced Dave Wannstedt to resign. I get the feeling that once a new head coach is found, Pederson will fade off into the sunset at Pitt. The urgency to find a football coach at Pitt is very real, as a staff needs to be assembled and a recruiting class needs to be set. They have a week or so to accomplish all of this, and this is no time to also begin a search for a new athletic director.

I also was somewhat amused by the idea of Blaine Gabbert declaring early for the NFL draft. I know that Gabbert put up some video-game like statistics in the Insight Bowl (minus the brain-dead interception that won the game for Iowa), but from my perspective, he's not ready for the NFL. Of course, I also didn't think that Josh Freeman was ready for the NFL, but it turns out that he's become a better quarterback in Tampa Bay than he was in Manhattan. What does that mean? Simple, it depends on who drafts him and how he gets developed. It all depends on where he goes, and whether there actually is an NFL season this fall, what with all the talk of a lockout.  If there is a season and he ends up in the right situation, it'll all work out for him just fine.  Maybe the Vikings will draft him; I'm sure a certain former Nebraska defensive lineman wouldn't mind meeting up again with him frequently.