Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday Night Beer: The Summer Doldrums Begin

Now that South Carolina has won their second straight College World Series, we now enter into the slowest two months of the local sports season. There's pretty much nothing going on, except for the Cox Classic golf tournament in about a month. (And that, even more so than the CWS, seems to be more party than competition.) So what's the final assessment? The new stadium is a rousing success. It looks great on TV, especially with the bleachers filled. The players love it, the fans love it. Even many of the old "Save Rosenblatt" crew realizes it was the right decision.

No doubt about it, TD Ameritrade Park plays bigger than Rosenblatt. That's not an indictment of either park, it's what the character of the ballpark is going to be. And as South Carolina proved in the clutch, defense and small-ball can win games. Those bases-loaded escapes against Virginia on Friday night and Florida on Monday night were amazing. The only change I'd consider is moving the fences in a few feet, and adding two rows of seating in the bleachers.  Fan interference would be possible, but one of the "character" aspects of Rosenblatt was watching fans reaching over the fence. And after the blown home run call, it might make more sense than having a fence to confuse the umpires.

One little aside: I would likely find the whole "Ameritragedy" a heck of a lot funnier if it hadn't been created by bored members of the press who watched the storms blow in (literally) from the safety of the press box on June 20th. It was just so, um, inconvenient.

It'll be interesting to see how Russell Wilson and Wisconsin adapt to each other. Wilson may be experienced, but he only has five weeks to study the playbook before fall camp begins. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has to figure out how much of the offense to try to force on Wilson. If there's one position on the football field that is difficult to change systems with, it's quarterback. I'm not suggesting Sam Keller is the poster child for quarterback transfers, but I would suggest that it's awfully easy to make Wilson's head swim if Wisconsin tries to do too much. Remember, Chryst can't really work with Wilson until August.

That being said, Wilson probably has far more upside than Jon Budmayr, Joe Brennan, or Joel Stave for this season, so it's probably a chance worth taking for Wisconsin. But let's not forget that Wilson only completed 58% of his passes and threw 14 interceptions in an offense he knew either.

Color me unimpressed with the Big Ten Network's "Welcome to Nebraska" programming extravaganza this weekend. I have no problem with showing the 1995 and 1998 Orange Bowls as part of it; those are great to show. But every day?  Then padding it with the HuskerVision season highlight videos every day? Reruns of reruns?  Really? How about adding in some other great Nebraska performances? How about the 2000 Fiesta Bowl? Where's the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, for crying out loud?  The Game of the Century: 1971 Nebraska/Oklahoma?

Even some classic Nebraska/Big Ten matchups would be good.  1995 Nebraska/Michigan State or 1999 Nebraska/Iowa?  The Big Ten should have the rights to show those games; they were televised under Big Ten contracts.  And more 2010 games would be good as well. I like showing the Missouri game, especially since Missouri's administration pushed so hard for a Big Ten invitation. What about the Washington game in Seattle? Oklahoma State?  BTN has been showing games from last season for much of the last couple of weeks, so this would fit in well.

Not that I don't mind watching Nebraska beat Miami...just that I thought we would see more.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blaming Nebraska

When somebody leaves a job, it's only natural for the people who remain to scapegoat the person who left for the problems the organization have. Sometimes it has a basis in fact: the person who left did, in fact, leave a mess. Sometimes it's just a sloppy transition, or just people having to adjust to a changed environment.

Or what usually happens, just pass the blame on, since the person who left isn't around to defend against the criticism. That seems to be the take of Berry Tramel of the Daily Oklahoman, who says it must be Nebraska's fault why the Big XII nearly collapsed last summer.

But as soon as Nebraska went out the door, everyone started getting along swimmingly. Even voted in equitable revenue-sharing, which always was a deal-breaker for UT, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Maybe the Huskers were the problem all along.
Some lovely revisionist thinking there; makes about as much sense as the people who say that Nebraska left the Big XII because they couldn't beat Texas. Simple minds search out simple solutions, and disregard any evidence that foils their journey towards the solution they want. Hey, Blame Nebraska!
Of course, that ignores most of the preliminary discussions about conference realignment from early 2010, where Nebraska was an afterthought, at best, in the discussions. Texas was shopping themselves to the Pac-10 and Big Ten.  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon was already on record in 2009, campaigning for the Tigers to jump to the Big Ten. Heck, if you believe Chip Brown, Nebraska was a non-player in all of this.  (Well, that's going a bit too far...)

If anything, Nebraska was reacting to the changing landscape of college football. They saw what their conference partners were doing, and realized that the Big XII was potentially headed for a catastrophic ending. And in the end, they found a more stable foundation.

So what changed between then and now to "save" the Big XII? Was it really Nebraska leaving?  Hardly.
It was the Pac-10 and Big Ten's rejection of Texas, meaning that Texas, in the end, really only had two options:  Big XII or Independent.  Neither the Pac-10 nor the Big Ten were willing to allow Texas to license their own television network, so that eliminated those two options for the Longhorns. So when it was all said and done, Texas knew that the only option they had left was to stay in the Big XII.

So what caused the recent burst of solidarity in the conference? Nebraska leaving?  Hardly.  Try the king sized deal ESPN gave Texas to operate the Longhorn Network. The deal came in so rich, there really wasn't much point in continuing to belabor the past issues involving the Big XII.  Texas could afford to give in on all of those points of concern, because even so, those issues pale in comparison to the pipeline of cash flushing into DeLoss Dodds office from the Worldwide Leader in Sports. And Texas does need the Big XII; they need the BCS conference membership, especially with such close rivals. It's not so much that they control the Big XII, they just know that spiting what remains of the Big XII really hurts Texas in the end. So they remain after spending their time last year feeling their oats, and realizing that they really did have a good deal after all.

Bottom line:  Texas stayed in the Big XII because only the Big XII would let Texas operate their own network and control that revenue.  Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech aren't willing to move anywhere away from Texas.  They just cannot escape them. Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, and Iowa State all are grateful to be in a BCS conference; they'll do whatever Texas asks just to avoid having to admit that they are "Proud Members of the Mountain West Conference."  ("Thank you sir, may I have another?")
Missouri, of course, desperately wants out of the Big XII and into the Big Ten...but was humiliated to find out that the interest was only one way. So for now, they remain a "Proud Member of the Big XII", but keep pining for their escape. They realize that nobody really wants them, so there they remain.

That leaves Texas A&M, who still has yearnings to break free for the SEC, if they'll have them. The Aggies are probably the wild card with the greatest potential to break up the remains of the Big XII. The Aggies want no part of the Pac-12 due to the travel issues, so it all comes down to whether the SEC wants to make inroads in the Texas television market.

And thus, this "marriage of convenience" for the ten remaining "proud members of the Big XII" seems likely to continue as long as the status quo remains. But let's not confuse true solidarity for what the Big XII is today: it's merely a marriage of convenience, and still very much fragile.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Monday Proves Downtown Right Spot for College World Series

Even before the storm sirens blared, I was about ready to declare that downtown had successfully passed the first workday edition of the College World Series. All those concerns about parking and traffic combined with a workday turned out to be unwarranted. Traffic moved smoothly both before both games, and the area parking lots never completely filled up. That was much to the disappointment of businesses who tried to capitalize on the demand by charging Rosenblatt prices for parking downtown. One lot already marked down their parking from $35 to $20, and many lots struggled to find takers at $15 when MECA's lots still had spots open at $10 a car.

Will downtown Omaha have a problem next year when the CWS and the Olympic Swim Trials overlap? Maybe. I saw an awful lot of open spaces around the Civic, so while people will have to hike (or take shuttle busses), there will be a place to park. Even so, it's only a couple of days...and a rare event Omaha could never turn down.

And of course, then the storm hit, sending fans scurrying for cover. As anybody who's ever waited out a rain delay at Rosenblatt can attest, there's far more options to take cover at TD Ameritrade Park when a storm hits. Certainly being able to scurry over to the Qwest Center is a huge improvement over racing a mile to your car in the storm. And the concourses at the Qwest Center can accommodate far more people than the claustrophobic insides of Rosenblatt.

Bottom line: the decision to move the College World Series downtown is quickly being validated as the right decision for Omaha each and every day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The CWS Opens - And For a Few, Fahey Moved Their Cheese

Last night, I headed down to the "Opening Ceremony" for the College World Series and when you consider that an estimated 23,000 people attended, I think it's nearly time to finally put to rest all those complaints about the move downtown. Sure, some people will still complain, but it's becoming more and more evident that their problem boils down to "somebody moved their cheese."

Parking complaints? Traffic? Puhhh-leeeze.  With thousands more parking spaces nearby, parking and traffic are so much better downtown than at Rosenblatt. Barely an hour before the opening ceremonies began, traffic moved very smoothly around the ballpark...a sharp contrast to the traditional traffic jams that ensnarled traffic from Rosenblatt all the way past I-480 some days.  Afterwards, streets were relatively congested, as you might expect with 23,000 people leaving at one time. But even that moved smoothly, and I was quickly able to get to the Interstate.  I estimate it took less than 15 minutes to find my way into clear sailing to head home. And most of that was because I ended up on Cuming Street, which is probably going to be the biggest bottleneck, though still so much better than 13th Street was.

The concourses at Ameritrade were full of people, but appeared to be able to handle the flow. I didn't visit the concessions, but I didn't see any long lines.  We'll see what happens when people spend a full day at the ballpark in the heat to gauge that.

Even Zesto's is there, now closer than ever, albeit with a temporary tent.  Everywhere you look, there are places to eat, drink, and party, if you so choose. All those concerns about the city and the NCAA taking the "fun" out of the CWS?  Please.

Is it a little sterile? Maybe. The empty seats certainly aren't as colorful as Rosenblatt's red, blue, and yellow seats. But one the place is filled up, you won't notice it.  Yes, we lose the iconic Desert Dome in right field, but gain lots of other stunning visuals: the Bob Kerrey bridge behind left field, and the Omaha skyline just behind the right field corner.

All those concerns about the river?  Everything seems to be holding, and the situation seems to have improved ever-so-slightly, as interstates start to reopen.  The sewer problem at 12th and Nicolas still exists, but frankly, any smell seems transient at worst.  Walking around the ballpark yesterday, the predominant smell was grills and hamburgers.

Have things changed? Yes...and for the better.  The downtown area is simply so much better equipped to handle this event.  Will it be perfect? Nope.  Events like this will never be...and it'll take time to work out the kinks. Some people will look back nostalgically at Rosenblatt and the wonderful memories, pushing the claustrophibic concourses, long lines, and ridiculous traffic/parking problems out of their minds. That's their choice to wallow in their unhappiness.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Vote Against Nebraska, Husker Fans

ESPN's SportsNation is trying to fill that summertime void by conducting an online vote for the best college traditions. Fair enough; it's summer time and we're waiting for football season to begin. The matchup is between Ohio State and Nebraska.  Ohio State's tradition is the "Script Ohio" that the Buckeye Band forms each game, with one lucky individual getting the honor of dotting the "i". Great pagentry, and a great tradition.

So what was Nebraska's entry?  A horseshoe.

Wait... a horseshoe?  That's right, a horseshoe.

OK, let's forgive ESPN a bunch of ignorance. The horseshoe really is a bit part of a larger Nebraska tradition: the Tunnel Walk.  Pretty cool tradition, mind you...but let's put it in perspective.  It's less than 20 years old, and it was created by that rat b**rd Steve Pederson.  Script Ohio is 58 years older and requires precise marching, and culminates with the honor of dotting the "i".

Sorry, but the Tunnel Walk loses that comparison.  It's cool, just not that cool.

And frankly, Nebraska's traditions don't hold up that well against some of the rest of college football. When I heard of the Horseshoe being nominated, I racked my brains for something that could compete with "Script Ohio", and frankly, I couldn't come up with many. The fiftieth year of sellouts?  That comes close, but it's not really an action you can point to. Sea of red? A lot of places dress in their school colors.  Balloons after the first score? Maybe, but that's not very impressive. "Waving the corn" has some potential, but only about a third of the stadium does it, and besides, we stole it from Kansas.  "Husker! Power!" is a good chant, as is "Gooooo Biiiiiiig Reeeeedddd!  GOBIGRED!", but again, those chants aren't there either.

Doesn't make Nebraska football bad, just that we haven't identified that signature tradition that's only Nebraska. The Tunnel Walk might be there some day, but it's too new...and certainly not up to the same level of tradition as Script Ohio.

I'm sure that the word is being passed around once again to "vote for Nebraska" in this vote.  Except we're not voting for Nebraska, but rather a tradition. And in this one, Ohio State's tradition is much better than Nebraska's. We're not voting for Bo Pelini, or for Jim Tressel here. We're not voting for Tommie Frazier or Terrelle Pryor. It's two traditions, and the tradition ESPN picked for Nebraska doesn't hold a candle to the other.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit caught his underwear in a huge wedgie when an ESPN discussion as to the best college football team ever came down to a question of 1971 vs. 1995 Nebraska. He accused Husker fans of stuffing the ballot box. When it's an argument like whether 1995 Nebraska was the best team ever (they are), whether 1994 Nebraska was better than 1994 Penn State (probably two touchdowns better), whether Ndamukong Suh was the best player in college football in 2009 (should have won the Heisman), or whether Tommie Frazier got screwed in this year's college football hall of fame vote (he did), Nebraska fans should jump in with their partisan opinion. And do it with confidence that it's the right thing to do.

But for the "horseshoe"?? Sit this one out, or vote for Ohio State. This isn't a vote Nebraska should win.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One Year Later, Remaining Big XII Schools Try to Rewrite History

It's interesting how people perceive things after the fact. This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Nebraska's epic switch to the Big Ten Conference, and with the switch less than three weeks away, everyone seems to be more comfortable with the situation. Certainly Nebraska fans are pleased with it; new rivalries and no pay-per-view broadcasts for football games. But by that same matter, Nebraska fans probably haven't fully realized what they've lost, like close opponents like Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State, which made for easy drives for fans. That'll come with time, I guess.  Maybe when in five years or so, when that seven hour drive to the Twin Cities or that nine hour drive to Champaign/Urbana starts getting a little old.

But I get the feeling that in the remains of the Big XII, denial isn't just a river in Egypt. Lots of revisionist thinking going on over there, as those "proud members of the Big XII" keep trying to convince themselves of just that. Take Missouri, for example. Eighteen months ago, they were the first Big XII school to actively shop themselves around...and eventually found that only the Mountain West and the Big East were the only interested parties. So are they "proud members" now? Of course they are now after they didn't even win Miss Congeniality last summer.

Particularly humorous was this interview with Dan Beebe by the normally level-headed Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily-Herald. (I nearly did a spit-take on my laptop when I read the headline about Beebe saving the Big 12.) The chuckles revolve around the Big XII's new TV deal with Fox, with games all over the dial (Fox Sports Net, where it gets pre-empted by baseball, basketball, and hockey in major markets), FX (where nobody looks for sports programming), and Fox College Sports (does anybody get this on cable anyway?)  Yep, the Big XII is going to make more money than they used to...but the SEC is already reexamining their deals with CBS and ESPN, and the Big Ten goes back to the well in a few years as well.

It's still a somewhat fragile relationship, formed in large part on rejections by everybody else. Texas stuck with the Big XII after the Pac-12 refused to budge on a Longhorn television network. Texas A&M keeps hinting about the SEC. It's a marriage of convenience for most of the Big XII South, and a marriage of necessity for Baylor and the remaining Big XII North schools.

So while the Big XII is all talking warm and fuzzy now, don't believe that all is well behind the scenes. The same issues that nearly destroyed the conference last year still remain, and still mostly unresolved.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Thursday Night Beer: Sleep Deprived Out-of-Office Edition

It's been a busy week out-of-town, so here are some belated quick takes.

Darin Erstad. There are two ways to take Erstad's hiring as the new head coach for Husker baseball: (1) Tom Osborne was bold, or (2) Tom Osborne was lazy and gave it to one of his former players.  Which one is correct? It comes down to your perspective, I guess. I lean towards the "bold" label. Erstad is an intense player who should bring instant name recognition when he's out recruiting. Lee Barfknecht calls him a "rock". The lack of experience doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad hire either. Larry Dieker had never coached before becoming manager of the Houston Astros. They won the division four out of five seasons.

TD Ameritrade Park and Flooding. At this point, I'm not terribly concerned; it'll take a lot more flooding to make it there. If anything, I'd be concerned about the Qwest Center. That being said, getting there may be difficult for people who drive in, just based on the flooding on the Iowa side of the river.

Big Ten Network: I'm not quite sure what's going on between the Big Ten Network and local cable companies like Cox in Omaha or Time Warner in Lincoln, but it's definitely a power play. It's a confusing story, as Jim Delaney seems to indicate that the Big Ten Network might not televise any Nebraska games until some of these other cable companies sign an upgraded contract. I'm thinking I don't have an issue, as my cable company added BTN last December to their basic cable package. But if the Big Ten decides to pocket the broadcast rights and refuse to televise the games, who knows what will happen.  My best guess is that Cox and Time Warner are trying to hold the Big Ten to an older "out of area" deal, as BTN charges cable companies outside the Big Ten region less than they charge companies in Big Ten areas.  When the cable companies signed up with BTN, Nebraska was a "proud member of the Big XII" and thus "out of the area".  Now that's changed, and the Big Ten wants the deal upgraded. And the leverage is Nebraska football.

Eric Crouch:  With the word that Eric Crouch was trying out for the Omaha Nighthawks, the almost predictable knee-jerk reaction of "quitter" came back. I've never quite understood the disdain some people have for Crouch around here. Did he quit the NFL? Yes... he decided he didn't want to play wide receiver. After watching him get lit up over the middle in his last preseason game, I kind of see why.  But the whole "quit the Huskers" thing? Let me ask a question: how many practices did he miss?  So he went back to talk to his old high school coach? Big deal. How many players talk to their high school coach after they graduate? Remember, Millard North is less than a one hour drive from Lincoln. And let's remember something else: Eric Crouch was clearly a better quarterback than Bobby Newcombe. Newcombe was an exciting open field runner, but he wasn't half the quarterback Crouch was.

Squeakball:  I may have to turn Twitter off for the evening, as I'm getting way too many confusing tweets from people that are apparently watching the Not Basketball Association.  I guess there was a game tonight. Me, I'm looking forward to game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final tomorrow night. Being on the road, I missed games 3 and 4 which turned out to be blowouts. But the first two games were pretty darn good.