Monday, January 18, 2010

Jets' Best Chance: Hurt Manning

Upset victories at Cincinnati and San Diego have given the New York Jets enough of a cushion to squeeze into Cinderella’s glass slippers in the 2009-10 NFL playoffs.

You could argue, and I will, that the Jets have already accomplished the hardest tasks they will face on the road to Super Bowl XLIV.

If the Jets beat the mighty Colts in Indianapolis today, it would not be the biggest upset of this NFL season (see Browns over Steelers, Dec. 12, 2009).

Nor would it be the biggest upset in the history of Jets vs. Colts.

That upset occurred on January 12, 1969. As guaranteed by Joe Namath in Super Bowl III: Jets 16, Colts 7.

Defense and a strong running keyed the Jets’ upset that day. And football experts cite those factors as the Jets’ best chance for a win today.

Actually, there is an easier way.

Easier but unsportsmanlike.

Knock Peyton Manning out of the game.

The Colts are virtually unbeatable with Manning, their All-World quarterback, but undeniably mediocre without him.

In the Jets’ last visit to Indy, they scored a desperately needed 29-15 victory only because the Colts chose to rest Manning with a lead in the second half rather than pursue an undefeated regular season.

Manning’s replacement, Purdue rookie Curtis Painter, had a deer-in-the-headlights look in the Week 16 game.

Imagine how terrified Painter would be in today’s game with the AFC Championship at stake!

One solid hit on Manning by the blitz-happy Jets, or an accumulation of hard hits, could put him on the sideline and the Jets in firm control of the game.

Would Jets Coach Rex Ryan do such a thing?

Well, his father would. Remember the “Bounty Bowl?”

On Thanksgiving Day 1989, a Philadelphia Eagles team coached by Rex Ryan’s equally irascible father, Buddy, literally beat up the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium.

Giddy Eagles players revealed afterward that the team had a bounty on the heads of Cowboys kicker Luis Zendajas, whom they injured, and star quarterback Troy Aikman, whom they tried hard to injure.

Buddy Ryan stopped at nothing to win a game. And he never got to a Super Bowl as a head coach.

Rex Ryan is just one victory from a Super Bowl as a rookie head coach.

It appears to me that Ryan, the hot new coach in The Big Apple, has not fallen far from the tree.

So would Ryan tacitly urge his players to knock out Peyton Manning?

Why not?

If you’ve been paying close attention to football this month, then you know sportsmanship has been taking a pounding.

Two cases in point:

In the college national championship game on January 7, Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s team scored a needless touchdown in the final minute against Texas to produce a 10-point victory.

Last Sunday, with the Vikings already crushing the Cowboys 27-3, Minnesota Coach Brad Childress (a man who once said his team needed to play like “serial killers”) had Brett Favre throw a rub-it-in-their-faces touchdown pass on fourth down.

Neither Childress nor Saban apologized for his lack of sportsmanship.

Winning isn’t everything, both seemed to say. It’s the only thing.

Obviously, the Jets want to reach their first Super Bowl in 41 years.

If they decide to paint a bulls-eye on the back of the Colts’ No. 18 today, then they will show us exactly how badly they want it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Shame on CNN

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, there is no need to exploit the immense human suffering on the impoverished Caribbean island.

Unfortunately, a CNN crew ignored that fact.

Scenes of Haitians seeking food, water, medical attention and information about the fate of loved ones are heart-wrenching enough.

But just as bad are the manufactured scenes.

On Friday night, Anderson Cooper’s CNN program showed footage of reporter Chris Lawrence in the midst of a crush of Haitians trying to get biscuits distributed from the back of a truck by relief workers.

“You can see the incredible chaos here!” Lawrence yells over the noise of people yearning for their first taste of food in days.

“Everybody pushing and shoving, desperate for anything to eat,” Lawrence shouts while being jostled from side to side and back and forth.

Lawrence had no business positioning himself, and a camera/sound person we did not see, in the midst of the tumult.

Whoever at CNN decided to inject Lawrence into the scene should be fired.

Two hours earlier, I saw the same footage on BBC News, but shot from a wider angle.

And the BBC reporter—who, like Lawrence, gets to sleep in a warm bed in a hotel room in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, at the end of every grim day—did not insinuate himself into the chaos.

After Lawrence’s piece, he appeared in a live shot with Cooper as darkness had descended upon the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

“Here’s what those people were so desperate for,” he tells Cooper, holding up what he described as a biscuit in a white wrapper.

Did Lawrence really have to take a biscuit just to play show-and-tell on CNN?

Of course not.

Why not simply show footage of a Haitian holding a biscuit?

But CNN found it more important to exploit the story rather than report it.

Tragically, there will be many more casualties in Haiti.

Basic human decency from news-gathering organizations need not be one of them.

If you text “Yele” to 501501 on your cell phone, a $5 donation will be made to the Haitian relief effort. Your cell phone will be charged $5.

Text “Haiti” to 90999 on your cell phone and a $10 donation will go to the Red Cross for Haitian relief efforts. Your cell phone will be charged $10.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Alabama 24, Texas 13

Tonight, Alabama running back Mark Ingram will become the second player in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy and the Bowl Championship Series title game in the same season. (USC quarterback Matt Leinart was the first.)

Ingram and his teammates are on the cusp of the Crimson Tide’s first national championship in 17 years.

The victory will be history-making and bittersweet for the Ingram family.

History-making because Ingram’s father, also named Mark, won a Super Bowl as a New York Giants wide receiver 19 years ago.

Bittersweet because the father won’t be in Pasadena, CA, to watch his son, nor will he be able to watch the game as a free man.

If Mark Ingram Sr. is allowed to watch at all, he will do so as an inmate in a Queens, NY prison, having been convicted of money laundering.

Mark Jr., a speedy sophomore, is 5-10 and 215 pounds and runs even bigger.

To his credit, he hasn’t succumbed to the pressure of playing big games while knowing he’ll be asked afterward about his father’s incarceration.

Heisman Trophy winners have struggled in national title games. They’re only 1-6 in such games, but Ingram will improve that record to 2-6.

The Texas Longhorns, his opponent in the national championship game, will do their utmost to stop Ingram.

The ’Horns may slow him down. But they won’t shut him down.

Two of Ingram’s teammates could be bigger factors in the game: Javier Arenas, a cornerback and superb kick returner; and Rolando McClain, a linebacker who will become an NFL star.

Just like Ingram.

Surely, you have noticed the man in the houndstooth hat that appears alongside this column.

That’s Paul “Bear” Bryant, the greatest coach in Alabama history, and one of the greatest football coaches ever.

The Tide won six national championships and 13 Southeastern Conference titles while The Bear prowled the sidelines, and they were title contenders virtually every year.

Every coach that has followed Bryant at Alabama has ridden in the back seat.

Gene Stallings coached Alabama to its last national title.

Nick Saban coaches Alabama now.

Each took the job after cutting his teeth as an NFL assistant specializing in defense—Stallings with the Cowboys, Saban with the Browns.

(Saban later became an NFL head coach, but he ran out on the Dolphins in season—after denying he would—to take the Alabama job.)

Stallings was very good. Saban is very good.

Both pale in comparison to The Bear.

Notice the crowd shots at the Rose Bowl tonight. You’ll see Alabama fans in houndstooth hats, paying homage to The Bear.

No other football coach has as tight a hold on the consciousness of his former team and its fan base as Bryant at Alabama.

Bryant coached during an era of enormous social upheaval in America. While he was not exactly a staunch supporter of civil rights, Bryant devised a cunning plan to convince segregationist Alabamans it was time for Crimson Tide football to integrate.

Bryant invited USC coach John McKay to bring his integrated squad to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to play the all-white Tide in 1971.

Bryant wanted Alabamans to see firsthand the speed, quickness, skill and athleticism of African-American players like USC running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who led the Trojans to an easy victory.

Bryant also wanted to keep winning big football games.

Since players like Cunningham were putting an indelible stamp on major-college football from coast to coast, The Bear essentially told Alabama: If we don’t get with the program, we’ll never compete for another national title.

Because of Bryant, I have always had an affinity for Alabama football.

The Tide lost their way for many years after his retirement, but Saban has rebuilt them into a national power.

And Ingram will help make them champions again.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Texas Tech Snubs Ruffin McNeill

Not every touching story in college football has a happy ending.

Take the story of Ruffin McNeill, a football lifer who deserves better.

After leading Texas Tech to a 41-31 victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl last Saturday night, McNeill should have had the word “interim” removed from his job description and been named head coach of the Red Raiders.

That would have created a scene as heartwarming as anything in The Blind Side, the Sandra Bullock film about NFL player Michael Oher and the white family that adopted him as a homeless teen in Memphis.

But it appears McNeill will not get the chance to become the first black “non-interim” head coach in any sport in Texas Tech’s history.

Instead, the good ol’ boys stand to get their way again.

Tech is courting Tommy Tuberville, who spent 2009 working for ESPN after being paid by Auburn University to resign following the ’08 season.

Tuberville, 55, has had success in college football. He won the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award in ’04 after leading Auburn to a 13-0 season.

He also has failed on the big stage.

He also has played fast and loose with the truth.

In 1998, he sought to dispel rumors he would leave Ole Miss by saying, “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box.”

He signed with Auburn two days later.

Were it not for that 300-pound gorilla on the field known as race, Tuberville would not be considered a better choice for Texas Tech than McNeill.

Tuberville has no ties whatsoever to the Big 12 school in Lubbock, Texas. His past strongly suggests he would try to parlay any success at Tech to land a more glamorous gig somewhere else.

McNeill, meanwhile, has served with distinction at Tech for the past 10 years: first as a special teams coordinator hired by Mike Leach, then as the defensive coordinator.

When Tech fired Leach last week for mishandling a player diagnosed with a concussion, McNeill was named interim head coach.

“We all want Coach Ruff to get the job,” running back Baron Batch said after the game in explaining why Tech players walked onto the Alamo Dome field arm-in-arm with McNeill.

Batch, 22, is African-American, just like the vast majority of skilled players at Texas Tech and every other major-conference school.

Most of them will never see a black man in charge of a major-conference football program.

This sad reality makes it more difficult for these student-athletes to ever visualize themselves in such a position.

Batch, a senior in 2010, deserves to play more than one game for McNeill.

McNeill deserves the same opportunity Bill Stewart received.

Stewart, a career assistant coach, was named interim head coach at West Virginia days before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl after Rich Rodriguez abruptly signed with Michigan.

Mountaineers players took the field that night arm-in-arm with Stewart. They played hard for Stewart. They beat Oklahoma for Stewart.

After the game, Stewart was named head coach. He still has the job.

But the racial dynamics were different at West Virginia; Stewart is white.

McNeill is 51. His father, a retired high school football and basketball coach, played football at Johnson C. Smith, a historically black college in Charlotte.

McNeill’s mother played basketball and softball before earning her degree from Barber-Scotia College in Charlotte, a school founded in 1867 as “an institution for the training of Negro women.”

McNeill played strong safety and was team captain at East Carolina from 1976-79 before getting into coaching as a graduate assistant at Clemson. He holds a master’s degree in sociology.

If there is not room in the head coaching ranks of major college football for Ruffin McNeill, then the sport is sicker than you could imagine.

McNeill was candid and engaging with the media before and after the Alamo Bowl. He approved a daring quarterback change in the fourth quarter that sparked the team and made gutsy decisions to go for it on fourth-down plays that sealed the victory.

Afterward, McNeill’s players, black and white, doused him with Gatorade and gave him bear hugs as if he were their father.

But the administration, boosters, alumni and other friends of the program at Texas Tech evidently would rather pony up to Tuberville.

Never mind that Tech needs athletes who look more like a young McNeill than a young Tuberville to keep their program from becoming irrelevant.

There are 119 colleges competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division 1-A. Of those 119 schools, only a dozen have black head coaches.

This is not an accident. It is a scandal…a scandal that continues with the apparent snubbing of Ruffin McNeill at Texas Tech.