Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Nike Syracuse hoops uniforms aren't true to my school

Memo to Nike and to the powers that be at Syracuse University: The official colors of my alma mater are ORANGE and BLUE.

That's ORANGE and BLUE.

Not Georgetown Hoya gray.

Yes, I'm seeing red about the Cuse's decision to allow Nike to do as they pleased when it came to designing these ugly, futuristic basketball uniforms that reportedly will be worn during SU's game against South Florida in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 22.

Unfortunately, this marketing ploy is all about another color: Green, as in the color of the mucho dollar bills Syracuse and eight other programs, including Duke, North Carolina and UConn, will be raking in by selling school tradition down the river.

What's next?

Ohio State wearing Michigan maize and blue? Or Notre Dame donning the maroon and yellow of Southern Cal?

I guess fans at the South Florida game will have to support the Orange by chanting, "Let's Go Gray!" or, more appropriately, "Let's Go Nike!"


Or, in this case, Swoosh!


NFL Commish Roger Goodell received a deserved contract extension and raise that will see him make $11 million a year through 2018. Now could somebody please explain to me why Goodell makes $11 mil for overseeing an ever-expanding $30 billion entity, while his baseball counterpart Bud Selig rakes in $25 mil for overseeing a $16 billion sports league that is treading water.


Beth and I have seen about 80 percent of the Oscar-nominated movies and I firmly believe Leonardo DiCaprio got hosed big-time. His portrayal of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was superior to that of George Clooney as far as I'm concerned. I admit that Descendents was a better movie than J. Edgar, but DiCaprio shouldn't be punished for that.


You can rip the Yankees for many things, but when it comes to bidding their heroes adieu, nobody does it better. That was a classy sendoff they gave Jorge Posada.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Syracuse faces an ill-timed Fab Melo-drama

They were bound to lose eventually, and that it happened in South Bend, where there’s a history of win streaks being snapped and No. 1’s being toppled, is not shocking.

What was shocking was the news that center Fab Melo was back in Syracuse, reportedly attending to academic matters.

The big concern is this: If the Orange men continue to be “Fab-u-less” they no longer will be fabulous. If this Melo drama persists well beyond Monday night’s game in Cincinnati, they can kiss good-bye their hopes of a national championship run.

It’s been well-documented that this SU roster was deeper in talent than any other in Jim Boeheim’s 36 seasons at the ‘Cuse. But that doesn’t mean it was so deep that it could afford the loss of its 7-foot center from Brazil. The anchor of the Orange men’s 2-3 zone swatted away and altered a multitude of shots this season, enabling SU to fast-break to a 20-0 record, the best start in school history.

But as we saw in Notre Dame’s 67-58 victory last night, SU can be manhandled inside without Melo. The Orange men were not a great rebounding team with him; without him they are terrible. While Melo clearly isn’t the most talented Orangeman, he just might be the most indispensible.

If he can get his academic house in order and return to the lineup soon, SU will be OK. But if Melo is done for the year, I can’t see Syracuse compensating enough to make a serious run.

Sadly, this is reminiscent of two seasons ago when center Arinze Onuaku went down with a leg injury just before the NCAA tournament. AO’s absence cost SU a shot at a national title. The same sad scenario will unfold here if Fab’s long gone. A special team and a special season will be sabotaged by a big loss.

Still sticking with my early week picks of the Giants and Patriots in today’s conference championship games.

My thanks to the folks at the Lyons Public Library for hosting my talk and booksigning yesterday. The people there were great, welcoming me with a warm embrace. We sold a lot of books and raised several hundred dollars for the library in Jim Boeheim’s home town. Enjoyed myself immensely.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Recalling my encounters with Ali

In my nearly four decades as a sports scribe, I’ve been privileged to have met and interviewed the biggest names in sports. Icons such as Mantle and Mays, Unitas and Montana, Chamberlain and Jordan, Howe and Gretzky. But I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone as charismatic as Muhammad Ali. Whether it was the streets of Sydney, Australia or a packed locker room at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., people gravitated to him like paper clips to a magnet.

And during each of my encounters with him, I witnessed his kindness first-hand, particularly here in RahChaCha. It’s difficult to see the way Parkinson’s has ravaged him and it’s hard to fathom that Ali is now – egads – 70 years old.
But his magnetic hold on people endures. As do his acts of kindness.

In honor of his birthday yesterday, I offer an essay I wrote to mark a previous milestone day for him five years ago.


Muhammad Ali motioned for me to join him in the middle of the room. I did so reluctantly, knowing full well he was a prankster and I might be fodder for one of his trademark practical jokes.

The former boxing great had me make a fist with my right hand and place my knuckles against his left cheek as if I had just connected with a knockout punch.

As a photographer was about to snap our picture, Ali feigned fear, acting as if I was Smokin' Joe Frazier. We all started laughing. With that one little gesture, Ali had made me feel like I was the greatest. I discovered that was a feeling Ali engenders in almost everyone he meets.

During that unforgettable night eight years ago in Sydney, Australia, Ali entertained us with magic tricks, levitation acts, poetry and a discussion about religion. Parkinson's syndrome from too many punches to the noggin had quieted his once bombastic voice. But he hadn't lost his ability to communicate. His mind remained sharp, his smile was still infectious, his spirit still playful.

Today, as Ali celebrates his 65th birthday, I can't help but think back to that special night at the 2000 Summer Olympics, as well as the several other nights I was in his presence. I continue to be amazed by the magnetic pull he has on people. It has been fascinating to witness his transformation from pugilist to humanitarian. A quarter century after his last fight, he continues to KO people with kindness.

Rochester is among the places worldwide that have been touched by his big heart.

Who can forget how he saved the Rochester Press-Radio Club's Day of Champions children's charity dinner eight years ago? Remember how then-Yankees pitcher David Wells was supposed to be the headliner, but begged out at the last minute for mysterious personal reasons?

With the dinner ready to thud against the canvas, a la one of Ali's knocked-out opponents, the boxer's longtime friend and photographer, Howard Bingham, put in a call. Ali boarded Kodak's private jet and flew to Rochester to save the day.
His surprise appearance evoked chants of "Ali! Ali! Ali!" from the throng of nearly 1,300 dinner-goers. He donated two autographed boxing gloves that fetched $11,000.

Most headliners charge an arm and a leg to attend the dinner. Not Ali. Not only did he come on extremely short notice, he appeared for free, meaning local charities benefited much more than they would have had Wells shown up.

I saw similar kindness from Ali a few years earlier when he attended the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame Dinner to raise money for former Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, who had lost his wife and son to drug overdoses and had fallen on hard emotional and financial times.

And Ali was just as gracious when he came here back in 1994 for the annual Aquinas Institute Mission Bouts.

Though his movements were affected by his condition, the boxing icon still managed to dazzle the kids with his fancy footwork, performing the "Ali Shuffle" in the locker room before the opening bell.

Whether it was Rochester, Australia or Atlanta for the lighting of the 1996 Olympic caldron, he drew crowds and elicited smiles. His charisma was undeniable. He walked into a room and became it. People gravitated to him. The love was palpable and two-way.

I know there are those who don't like him, those who think he was a draft dodger and created a culture of trash talking and disrespect.

But the Ali I've witnessed has been incredibly kind-hearted and giving.

He may no longer float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but he still knows how to lift spirits. It's been a privilege to experience his kindness first-hand. Happy birthday, Champ.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Defenses still make a difference in the point-crazy NFL

Yes, the NFL, with its rules ridiculously skewed toward the offense, is a quarterback-driven league.

But as we learned this past weekend, defenses still can win – or lose – championships.

Look at the number the Giants and 49ers defenses did against the high-flying Packers and Saints. The G-Men battered league-MVP Aaron Rodgers, sacking the Green Bay QB four times and forcing him to turn it over twice (fumble and interception.) The Niners, meanwhile, derailed Saints record-setter Drew Brees, delivering a number of crunching blows to him and his running backs and receivers while taking the ball away five times.

And the Packers’ and Saints’ defensive deficiencies were dramatically exposed by Eli Manning and the up-and-coming Alex Smith. It really underscored just what great seasons Rodgers and Brees had to have in order to compensate for their respective "D's."


I have to keep reminding myself that Tom Brady – who’s playing quarterback as well as anyone ever has – lasted till the sixth round of the draft. And let’s not forget that for all his football genius, Patriots coach Bill Belichick also passed on Tom Terrific for five rounds.


What Jim Harbaugh has done this season with the 49ers is one of THE best coaching jobs I’ve ever seen. His development of the beleaguered Smith into a serviceable quarterback has been astonishing. The former No. 1 overall pick looked like Joe Montana during those final minutes of Saturday’s stunning upset of New Orleans.


My early picks for this week: Giants 23, Niners 16 and Patriots 27, Ravens 13. That, of course, would set up a rematch of the Super Bowl from four years ago.


I think another Super Bowl title would guarantee Giants coach Tom Coughlin a bust in Canton. You can already make a case for him, when you combine the success he’s had with the Giants with the job he did in building the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars into an AFC powerhouse in just two years. His 142 victories put him among the Top 20 winningest coaches in NFL history, and he has five divisional titles to go along with four conference championship appearances.


Shifting gears, I’ll be covering tonight’s SU-Pitt basketball game at the Carrier Dome for WROC TV-8 (you can read more about it tomorrow on their website at Although the Panthers have won five straight in the series, I believe the deep and talented Orange will prevail against a Pitt team that has been hurt by injury and has badly underachieved. The win would give the Cuse a school-best 20-0 start and enable Jim Boeheim to tie Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp for the fourth-most victories among men’s Division I college basketball coaches.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ruminating on Jorge Posada's legacy, Penn State's new coach & the quest to own the Dodgers

Hip, hip Jorge! to Jorge Posada for his decision to retire as a New York Yankee and not prolong his fading career as a bench-warmer for some other club.

Posada is a fiercely proud man and this had to be incredibly difficult, knowing how much he loves playing the game. But it was the right decision because injuries and age (40) had reduced him to a shell of his former self in recent years.

He leaves the game as the fourth best catcher in Pinstripes history in my book, trailing only Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey and Thurman Munson. Posada finished with 275 home runs, 1,065 runs batted in and a respectable .273 average. I don’t believe he is a Hall-of-Famer, but I do believe his legacy is much better than some are giving him credit for. Consider this: Posada’s combined on-base percentage (.374) and slugging percentage (.474) is exceeded by only three catchers in baseball history – Cooperstown enshrines Mickey Cochrane and Dickey and future inductee Mike Piazza.

Posada also scores well with intangibles. He was the most underrated of the Yankees “Core Four,” playing Ringo to the Bronx Bombers version of John, Paul and George – Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte. But while Jeter gets credit for being the Captain and leader of those Yankees teams that won five World Series titles, it was Posada who got in teammates’ faces or doled out encouragement, depending on the situation.

Here’s hoping that the Yankees convince Posada to coach or manage in their minor-league system because the guy is a winner.


I think Bill O’Brien said all the right things at the press conference announcing his hiring as the new Penn State football coach and I think former Nittany Lions were wrong in trashing him the way they did. I also think O’Brien has a monstrous challenge ahead of him, following in Joe Pa’s legendary footsteps and attempting to navigate through the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky mess. I don’t know who could really succeed in this situation. I harken back to the old adage that it’s better to be the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend. To me, O’Brien will wind up being a place-holder. His successor will be the coach who has a legitimate shot at getting the train back on the tracks.


Hopefully, that boring “Rematch of the Century” championship game between ‘Bama and LSU last night, along with the proliferation of mediocre bowl matchups preceding it, will finally convince the NCAA and Bowl Championship Series muckety mucks to take a serious look at a playoff system.


So the various groups in the bidding for the Los Angeles Dodgers now includes Disney, Magic Johnson, Larry King, Joe Torre, Steve Garvey and Mark Cuban. Personally, just to shake things up a bit, I’d like to see the bombastic Cuban become the new owner. His antics might be tough to take at times, but he’s never boring. And, as his ownership of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks has proven, he’s thoroughly committed to winning. Won’t happen though because MLB Commish Bud Selig doesn’t want anything to do with Cuban, whom he rejected from buying the Chicago Cubs.


Happy Birthday to my Dad - Andrew Edward Pitoniak - who sacrificed so much for me in the 15 years I had with him before his premature death. It's hard for me to fathom, but he would have been 99 years old yesterday.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

I believe this Syracuse team has a shot at the big prize

Had a chance to get my second in-person look at the Syracuse basketball team yesterday and I continue to be convinced that this team is a serious contender for the national championship. Yes, the Orange men squandered much of a 23-point lead in the second half against a pugnacious Marquette team, but they answered with a knockout punch when they were on the ropes to remain unbeaten (17-0) and top-ranked.

The play of the game – both for impact and entertainment value – was Dion Waiters’ shot block and fast-break score with just under five minutes remaining and SU nursing a four-point lead. Darius Johnson-Odom had just released a three-point shot from the left of the key, but it didn’t get far as Waiters elevated quickly and very high to reject it. What made the play even more memorable was that Waiters not only blocked the shot, but blocked it in such a way that he was able to retrieve the ball on the fly and swoop in for the layup that took the momentum out of the Marquette surge.

The Orange men wound up winning by seven against a Golden Eagles team that had beaten them twice last year, including that knock-out blow in the NCAA tournament.

This was a very good test for SU, which needed a close contest after beating its first 16 opponents by an average of more than 20 points.

This team reminds me of a deeper version of the squad two years ago that would have won a national championship had center Arinze Onuaku not suffered that leg injury before the NCAA tournament.

I like the way the current Orange play defense. (There was an 11-minute stretch yesterday when Marquette was held without a basket.)

I like their unselfishness. (On at least two occasions, an Orangeman could have driven in for a bucket on a fast break, but instead dished off to a teammate for the score.)

I like their senior leadership. Props to Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, who have set a good example for the younger players. Even during those times when things aren't going well for them individually and they are on the bench next to Boeheim for long stretches, they continue to exhort on their teammates rather than pout. That's mature leadership and rubs off on the younger players.

I like their 10-deep rotation. The bench crew, led by Waiters and C.J. Fair, is as good as if not better than the starting five, chipping in with 46 percent of the points scored by SU so far.

And I like the way these young men have been able to keep their focus, especially amid the media circus surrounding the Bernie Fine allegations.

The next stretch of the schedule finds SU on the road at Villanova, back home against Providence and Pitt and on the road against Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Those are all winnable games and should SU take care of business in those contests, it will establish a school record for most wins to start a season. (The current mark is 19-0.)

Winning at South Bend and Cincy won’t be easy, but if the Orange men get by those challenges, they could be taking their No. 1 ranking and unbeaten streak into February, where the toughest part of their schedule (Connecticut and Louisville) awaits.

This is not to say this is a team without flaws. As we saw Saturday, Scoop Jardine remains erractic and Fab Melo sometimes allows himself to be goaded into a foolish foul. Plus, the Orange men grew complacent for a stretch at the start of the second half and became lackadaisical at both ends of the floor.

But they have the depth to overcome off-nights by their front-line people.

They have a lot of go-to guys.

And for the first time in Jim Boeheim’s 36 seasons, he’s been willing to go very deep into his lineup.

Speaking of Boeheim, he is now just four wins from supplanting Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (876) and just seven wins shy of surpassing North Carolina’s Dean Smith (879) on the all-time win list. Those milestone victories will put him in third place, behind only Bobby Knight (902) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who continues to be the pace-setter with 912 wins and counting. Unless Coach K abruptly decides to call it quits, Boeheim is going to have to be content with No. 2 (as long as Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun doesn’t catch him from behind.)

When Boeheim passes Smith, he’ll be able to claim the crown as the winningest men’s coach at a single school, and given Jim’s loyalty to SU that’s going to be a pretty significant milestone for him personally.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bills' ''Comeback for the Ages" remains one of my all-time favorite sports moments

Yesterday marked the 19th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary sporting events I’ve covered – the Bills Wildcard playoff victory against the Houston Oilers in a game known simply as “The Comeback.”

Everybody remembers where they were when JFK was shot and when man first landed on the moon.

Same goes for western New Yorkers who were at the stadium formerly known as Rich that overcast January day nearly two decades ago.

It was one of those indelible, transcendent moments.

Do you believe in miracles?


The funny thing is that roughly half the crowd departed by halftime.

And I couldn’t blame them. I would have left, too, had I not been working.

With Buffalo trailing by 25 at intermission, we ink-stained wretches began writing obituaries for the 1992 season. And when Houston’s Bubba McDowell returned that interception for a touchdown early in the third quarter to make the deficit 32 points, we figured our stories were safer than the President of the United States in the underground White House bunker.

Well, you know what happened next.

Quarterback Frank Reich, who had authored the greatest comeback in major college football history while at the University of Maryland, marched the Bills to a score to cut it back to 25.

Then, they scored again.

And again.

And again.

And, faster than you could say “Fandemonium,” we stopped typing and started paying attention.

Steve Christie put the finishing touches on the most dramatic comeback in NFL history with his overtime field goal to give the Bills a 41-38 victory that helped propel them to a third consecutive Super Bowl.

After the field goal sailed through the uprights, I hit the delete key on my story.

I had plenty of company along press row.

In the post-game presser, coach Marv Levy was asked about the odds of his team coming back from 32 points down in the second half. “About the same as winning the New York State Lottery,” he answered. More than a million-to-one.

A few years ago, when I collaborated on a book with Steve Tasker about those glory years, the Bills special teams demon reflected on what Marv told his players at halftime.

“All he said was, “Don’t ever let ’em say you gave up,” Tasker recounted. “There was brilliance in his simplicity. He didn’t berate us for crappy play, and he didn’t try to give us some rah-rah speech, which would have come across as disingenuous and phony. We had been to two straight Super Bowls, and he appealed to our pride. It wound up working. We chipped away and kept playing hard, and a miracle occurred.”

Aware of Reich’s heroics at Maryland, injured Bills starting quarterback Jim Kelly told Frank that “Maybe lightning will strike twice” as Buffalo prepared to receive the second-half kickoff.

Reich never stopped believing and neither did receiver Andre Reed, who had several huge catches as Buffalo climbed out of the crater it had dug itself.

I remember what a madhouse the Bills locker room was afterward. Guys were singing and jumping up and down. It was surreal.

And I also remember the funereal atmosphere of the Oilers locker room.

“Everywhere I go, I run into people who claim they were there that day,’’ Tasker told me. “If they are all telling the truth, our attendance should have been about a quarter of a million (rather than 75,141) for that game.”

I’m happy to report that I was there that day. And have my press pass and newspaper clips to prove it.

It was one of the most remarkable sporting events I’ve ever witnessed.

A day in which a journeyman backup and all-around good guy named Frank Reich won the football lottery and made us believe in miracles.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Yes, it's a pipedream, but I'd hire Polian as Bills GM in a New York minute

If I were Ralph Wilson, I’d be on the phone today to Bill Polian. I’d do everything in my power to convince the 68-year-old architect of Super Bowl-contending teams in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis to return to the Bills for one last rebuilding job.

It’s not going to happen, of course.

The volatile Polian left here in 1993, after the Bills third Super Bowl loss, on not so good terms. And although Buffalo went to an unprecedented fourth consecutive NFL championship game the following season, the franchise has never really been the same.

The decline after Polian’s departure wasn’t precipitous – a solid corps of star players remained, along with coach Marv Levy and top-notch personnel men, John Butler and A.J. Smith. But from a historical standpoint, that was the beginning of the end, or, at least the beginning of the events that have led to the 12-year playoff-less malaise the Bills find themselves in.

Polian, of course, went on to build the Carolina Panthers, an expansion franchise, into an immediate powerhouse; they made it to the NFC championship game in just their second year of existence.

And, after that, he became the president of the Colts, where he guided them on a fabulous run that included a Super Bowl championship.

Polian was the best judge of football talent I ever encountered. People take for granted his selection of quarterback Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in the 1998 draft. What they forget is that it was hardly a clear-cut decision at the time. In fact, in a poll of NFL general managers that April, Leaf was the choice of the majority.

Polian’s fingerprints are all over the Bills’ glory run. He was responsible for signing Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly. He helped draft Andre Reed, a fourth-round unknown from Kutztown State, and Thurman Thomas, after every team had passed him over in the first round because of injury concerns. His free agent signings included all-time Bills center Kent Hull. And, let us not forget, Polian was the man who hired Levy.

Polian was a fiery guy from the Bronx, who introduced himself as “Bill Who?” at the press conference announcing his promotion to Bills general manager in 1985.

He definitely could rub people the wrong way, and his feisty temperament often was at odds with Wilson and other Bills executives, ultimately resulting in his unceremonious departure.

Polian wound up being named the NFL Executive of the Year six times (with three different teams.) Although his teams won just one Super Bowl, I believe he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I also believe he belongs back in the general manager’s chair at One Bills Drive.

But that’s never going to happen.

At the very least, I hope Ralph lets bygones be bygones and does the right thing by affixing Polian’s name on the stadium Wall of Fame.

It’s something that should have been done for Lou Saban and Cookie Gilchrist while they were alive.


Please check out my wrapup column on the Bills 2011 at WROC's website -