Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bill Simmons "Saves" Holy Cross

I think this will have to be done as an open letter to Mr. Simmons. Basically, for those of you that follow Holy Cross' famous sportswriting alumnus Bill Simmons, yesterday he posted an attempt at humor that pretty much insulted not only his alma mater, but anyone who feels passionately about Patriot League sports. (He also mentioned Holy Cross in his basketball blog that was equally as damaging.)

In a nutshell, Mr. Simmons' thesis (you know I'm worked up when I call him Mr. Simmons) is that Holy Cross basketball "has a degree of difficulty every season" that isn't necessary, and (with tongue-in-cheek) makes some "suggestions" to improve the program. Some of his suggestions include NCAA violations ("I want to be a booster. I want to break rules. I want to make a difference."), getting a coach which looks the other way during recruiting violations ("Replace Willard with a disgraced coach looking for a second chance, someone who doesn't mind bending a rule or 10 to get the program humming.") and other such hilarity.

To top it off, he has some choice words for the Patriot League itself, calling it "No-Man's Land" and "a homeless man's version of the Ivy League", and mock-suggesting that Holy Cross should join the NESCAC of Division III since it's "what it's so desperately trying to become."

A lot of folks on the CrossSports board have weighed in, as well as HoopTime. It hasn't been pretty. Now it's my turn.

Bill,
You really had me fooled.

As a fellow Red Sox fan and '92 graduate of a Patriot League school, I thought you'd be a different type of sportswriter. I read your book, Now I Can Die In Peace, and found myself smiling, and kicking myself. How did I not know about this guy sooner? An unapologetic Red Sox fan - and Patriot League alumnus? You echoed what all Red Sox fans felt at that time - the us-versus-them mentality. There was an element of rooting for the underdog. Even in your writeup of the Patriots' Super Bowl win it's there.

I had seen this perspective slip in the past year. I'd forgiven you when you said you forgave the Red Sox for spending like, well, the Yankees after watching D-Mat pitch. I'd forgiven you for saying that we all should love the eminently non-lovable Patriots. I even forgave you for having man-crushes on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, even though I have serious doubts that either kid has taken a single class at Texas or Ohio State.

But I have to say stop when slamming Holy Cross and the Patriot League.

I have no problem about trying to be funny or sarcastic. (This probably makes sense from me, who once suggested that Columbia football start a unique promotion involving sky blue Jello in order to boost attendance.) But in all honesty after reading the column twice, I'm not clear whether you're serious or you're joking. I have to ask: Do you really think it's OK to get players in there who can barely hack it academically and hire a coach to (basically) cheat their way in order to become "the Gonzaga of the East"?

If you honestly believe that, my friend, then you have truly gone to the dark side. It's no longer about doing things pretty much the right way and winning. It's then all about winning at any cost, monetarily or ethically. Basically, you've just become another voice of darkness, another John Calipari in world where there are too few Ralph Willards.

Is this what it's about? UMass envy? Because your "solution" for Holy Cross basketball looks an awful lot like the crap UMass tried to pull in the Calipari era. Would you rather have gotten the aloof, conceited, Darth Vader-like Calipari from Pittsburgh instead of Willard as the Crusader head coach? Would you rather Marcus Camby have got into Holy Cross? Watch him get busted for accepting money from agents and possessing marijuana? See a Final Four appearance get vacated due to NCAA violations? See Calipari escape to the New Jersey Nets at the first sniff of trouble, leaving a wake of NCAA probation that UMass has struggled to shake ever since?

The Patriot League has not done everything right in its twenty years in existence. They took too long to go to scholarship basketball. They let some golden opportunities go for membership and athletic competitiveness. But they have been getting more things right than wrong, especially lately. Bucknell and Holy Cross have shown the Patriot League what a scholarship league can be - with real students who actually take challenging classes, and athletes who actually have a chance to make something of their lives, not playing for some chance to play in Clermont-Ferrand in central France. There's no reason why Bucknell and Holy Cross can't be a Southern Illinois or Butler in the world of college basketball, but with students that are in the top 5% academically.

But Bill, you've lost that. Incredibly, you had it once when rooting for the Red Sox. Now you're all A-Rod and no Sam Horn. All Maurice Clarett and no Gil Fennerty. To you, it's all about money and winning and the NBA - and you've completely lost the point. If you were cast in a sports movie, you'd be Tom Arnold.

You're lost in a world before you were born, where Holy Cross could graduate a 6'7 power forward and a 6'1 point guard that could become NBA hall-of-famers. You say that Heinsohn and Cousy are pissed because Holy Cross lost to Southern Illinois. I say that if Heinsohn and Cousy played today, it would still probably be Southern Illinois 61, Holy Cross 51. Times have changed. The game has changed. Everyone is more athletic. And the Patriot League is not there yet, but it's getting there - which is more than most conferences can say. (Ask the MAAC, for example.) Maybe if you watched more than one Patriot League game a year, you'd see that things are getting better. That's not being a "soccer mom", as you've intimated in your column - that's called watching Patriot League basketball games.

How could we have graduated the same year, from Patriot League schools, and come to such opposite conclusions? Granted, Holy Cross lost a lot athletically when it joined the Patriot League, and all the teams in the Patriot League floundered at first when the league tried to over-apply theory to the facts of collegiate athletics. But even you have to admit it's better now for Holy Cross than it was ten or fifteen years ago. Those debates on whether Holy Cross should really join the NESCAC are really over, and have been for years. (The final bell tolled when Arthur Rothkopf retired last year as Lafayette president.)

Do you love teams being made in the right way, with the right guys, with the right coaches? Do you love teams that can beat Big 12, SEC, Big East and A-10 teams? Do you love underdogs that will work harder and play better than these over-talented yet under-brain-powered teams? Then the Patriot League is for you. On the other hand, if you've completely lost it (as I suspect you have), please, by all means, claim you went to UMass instead. Root for Marcus Camby. Root for Memphis to make the Final Four, and by all means don't be sad when Calipari gets tagged again for NCAA violations and shows up as the next coach of the Denver Nuggets. After all, it's only about winning basketball games, even if you're cheating, right?

Just please don't claim that you are, or ever were, a fan of a Patriot League school.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

News from Spring Drills

Oh, yeah, it's spring. No doubt about it. I know it's spring because I, like many other crazy Lehigh football fans, are pouring over the new copy of the Spring Prospectus (just released by Lehigh), drinking up on the Alumni Bulletin's cover story on senior QB Sedale Threatt, and reading up on the latest ink from the Morning Call (Keith Groller's "Lehigh Digs In During Spring Drills"). And in all this spilled ink, there's plenty of fascinating information. I'd suggest you click these three links if you love Lehigh football, since if THESE articles don't get you pumped for September, nothing will.

Let's start with Mr. Groller's piece in the Morning Call, which starts with the bombshell that four seniors have gotten medical exceptions and will be able to play a 5th year due to medical exemption: LB Travis Stinson, LB Rusty Campion, DB/WR Brannan Thomas, and C John Reese. The addition of these players - three of whom were starters last year - have got to be a huge boost to the entire team. Having Campion and Thomas back could add some important senior leadership to a defense which graduated seven starters.

Of the four, however, Reese could be the most important - not only is he an all-league performer, but he's the only center who has snapped to our QB Sedale Threatt - that can only be good news, getting that continuity under center for Sedale's senior year. Coach Coen emphatically agrees - ''It'll be great to have John back out there because we need him,'' he said. Early on, the development of the offensive line seems to be one of coach's big focus areas this spring.

Some other choice quotes from the piece:

''I feel like we're so much farther along,'' Coen said. ''At this time last year, I was still trying to get to know everybody. Everybody's working harder. It's a great bunch of kids who want to get better. We need this [spring] period. We need to get them ready.''

''We lost so many good players, particularly on the lines,'' Coen said. ''We've got a lot of holes. So, now, as a coaching staff we've got to create opportunities for some of these kids to step up and win jobs. It's going to be a very physical springtime. We need to get after it and play a lot of football because we've got to find out who can line up for us on fall Saturdays.''

''We need to move forward and we are, but we realize we were in a lot of games last year that we could have won, but just didn't,'' Coen said. ''We've got to find a way to fight through the adversity in those close games. Champions are great fighters and that's why our theme for this year is: Fight Like Champions.''

"Fight Like Champions". I smell a T-shirt coming!

The spring prospectus shows us a little more detail as well about some of the upcoming battles. Especially at linebacker, prominently mentioned are seniors Rashaun Gasaway and Justin Weaver, as well as juniors Tim Diamond, Ben Pravata, and Dan Torino and sophomore Matt Cohen. Add 5th years' Rusty Campion and Travis Stinson to that mix, and you've got a very intriguing mix of upperclassmen, up-and-comers, and starting experience.

Some of the other interesting tidbits are some battles at some different spots, most notably tight end and fullback. Junior Troy Healion starts on top of the depth chart at TE (and was a favorite target of Sedale's at the goal line), but sophomore Conor Crawford or senior Joe Sutherland could possibly make a run at a starting nod. Similarly, senior John Piascik and junior Adam Watson should be in a tight race at FB, so there's plenty of questions to answer this spring.

Finally, Bill Doherty at the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin penned a great, touching piece on QB Sedale Threatt that is simply an outstanding look at Sedale's life so far. It starts with highlights from the Lehigh/Villanova broadcast (including the infamous "Down 14-0, Lehigh will either fight back or pack it in" announcement by the CN8 announcers - god, I loved that!) and seamlessly weaved it into Sedale's life story. If you thought that anything came easy to Sedale or his mom, I implore you to read the piece. Truly a great job of telling his story.

If the story weren't enough, there are even some headlines coming out of the piece as well:

[Former Lehigh head coach Pete] Lembo still keeps up with Threatt's exploits, and predicts great things for him this year.

"Sedale will be one of the best quarterbacks, if not the very best, in I-AA football next year," Lembo says.

And his old high school coach foresees Threatt shining on an even bigger stage.

"People laugh at me all the time, but I believe that Sedale Threatt will play pro football," says Souza. "He just has 'it' and he just never stops working, never stops competing. He's well aware of all the sacrifices that his mom has made for him, sacrificing her own dreams so that he could live his. And his dream is to play in the pros. With all that he's overcome in life, I wouldn't bet against him.

"And if he doesn't make it in the NFL, he'll be a big-time success in the business world with his charisma, his smarts, his Lehigh degree. Either way, there will be a happy ending to this story."

Can Sedale make the NFL? Honestly, I do not know the answer to that question, but one thing I do know is that everything depends on his senior year and how he improves. I've met Sedale; he is a kid with great charisma, a true leader, and a great student of football. He certainly is a kid who I really WANT to make it to the NFL. But it all depends on this season coming up.
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