Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Coaches: Doug Marrone & Chan Gailey

                Today’s topic deals with two Upstate coaches’ efforts to resuscitate moribund football programs, and how they compare to their predecessors.
                In the case of Syracuse University’s Doug Marrone, progress is being made.
                In the case of Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey, the rebuilding project continues to be stuck in reverse.
                Marrone’s Orange men are 7-5 and heading to their second bowl game in three years. His four-season mark is still a sub-.500 24-25, but what he’s done has been very impressive when you consider the mess he inherited. His predecessor, Greg Robinson, turned in the worst four-year record in the school’s storied history, winning just 10 of 47 games. Twice, Robinson’s teams lost 10 games, marking the only double-digit-loss seasons in Syracuse football annals.
                Marrone’s rebuilding job compares favorably with the first four years of two of SU’s Hall-of-Fame coaches – Ben Schwartwalder and Dick MacPherson. Ol’ Ben went 21-17 in his initial autumns at SU, leading the Orange to a 7-3 record and an Orange Bowl berth in season No. 4. Coach Mac was only 25-30-1 during his initial stretch and didn’t take Cuse to a bowl game until his fifth season when they went 7-5 with a Cherry Bowl victory.
                All three of the aforementioned Syracuse coaches’ starts were dwarfed by Paul Pasqualoni, who went 33-12-1 with two bowl victories and two 10-win seasons in his first four years. Of course, Coach P inherited a powerhouse from Coach Mac, so we aren’t comparing apples and oranges here.
                  Sadly, little progress has been made, record-wise, farther west, at One Bills Drive. Late into his third season, Gailey is 14-29. Dick Jauron, the man he succeeded, was 24-33 in three-and-a-half seasons. Mike Mularkey, who returns to the Ralph this Sunday as Jacksonville’s head coach, was a more respectable 14-18 in his two seasons, which included a 9-7 season, the Bills only winning record of the past decade. Mularkey’s predecessor, Gregg Williams, kicked off this mediocre stretch with a 17-31 mark in three seasons.
                Syracuse football still hasn’t completely turned the corner, but the job Marrone is doing is encouraging. And it's a lot more difficult to rebuild in college, where you can't rely on a draft or free agency.
                The job Gailey has done with Buffalo is much more discouraging. The Bills are headed to their 13th consecutive year without a playoff appearance – not an easy thing to do in a league predicated on parity and helping the weak become strong in a hurry.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ruminating on Lincoln, Syracuse's quarterback, Stan Musial and more college conference defections

             Before I get to my sports stuff, let me start out with a movie pitch. Please go see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. You won’t be disappointed.
 It’s a two-thumbs-up, five-star, 10-out-of-10, Oscar-worthy depiction of the most compelling figure in American history during a trying time when our nation was being torn asunder.
  Daniel Day-Lewis does a marvelous job capturing the nuances and subtleties of the 16th President’s genteel, caring personality, high moral character, under-rated sense of humor, shrewd political brokering skills and steely resolve – all of which Lincoln called upon while attempting to pass the amendment to abolish slavery.
Relying heavily on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magnificent book, Team of Rivals, Day-Lewis nails all the minute details, including Lincoln’s plodding, labored gait, and his thin, reedy voice. Spielberg’s use of limited light is a great touch in this dark era before electricity, when candle power and lanterns provided the only illumination other than the sun.
Sally Field also does a superb job portraying Lincoln’s troubled wife.
In case you’re wondering, I took this photo of the Lincoln statue that rests outside the Maxwell School of Citizenship on the campus of my alma mater, Syracuse University. This may be one of those facts that interests only me, but there are at least 125 Lincoln statues across the United States. I plead ignorance, but can anyone tell me if there is one here in Rochester, N.Y.?
                  I go from Honest Abe to Reliable Ryan. (Talk about difficult segues.) That would be Ryan Nassib, Syracuse’s senior quarterback, who, lately, has been on a torrid tear. During the last five games, he’s thrown 12 touchdown passes and been picked off just once. More importantly, he’s engineered four victories during that en fuego stretch, including two dramatic come-from-behind victories as the Orange men have improved to 6-5 and are now bowl eligible.
                As a result, Nassib has been shooting up the 2013 mock NFL draft boards. Although Mel Kiper Jr. rates him as a mid-to-late-round pick, others have him ascending much higher. Should Nassib continue playing well in Friday’s regular-season finale at Temple and in the bowl game and the all-star games to follow, his stock could continue to rise.
                I don’t see him as a franchise quarterback by any means, but given the dearth of good quarterbacking in the NFL he should wind up on someone’s roster as a project. The thing I like about the strong-armed Nassib is that he has shown steady improvement. He is a far superior quarterback than he was at the beginning of the season, and dramatically better than he was last year. So, there appears to be a lot of upside here. And playing in Doug Marrone’s pro-style offense certainly has helped.
              So the game of conference roulette continues with Rutgers leaving the Big East and Maryland departing the ACC to join the Big Ten that's on the verge of becoming the Big 14.
               This most likely means that the ACC will add Connecticut to fill the void caused by the Terps move. That would give the conference a northern division that includes Syracuse, Pitt, Boston College, UConn and two other existing schools. Throw in the arrangement with Notre Dame, which will commit to playing five football games against ACC opponents each year in exchange for having a conference home for all of the Irish's non-football sports, and you have a distinct Big East flavor.
                The loss of Rutgers, following the loss of SU, Pitt and West Virginia, leaves the Big East in shambles.
                 And something tells me the craziness hasn't ended.
                Happy 92nd birthday to one of my all-time favorite athletes and one of the all-time nice people in sports – Stan “The Man” Musial. It still amazes me how underappreciated his career is. Had he played in New York or Boston, as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams did, they would have been naming highways and tunnels after him.
 Some of my most enjoyable memories of Musial are from the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies when he would entertain the crowd with a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica. I hope someone serenades him with “Happy Birthday” on his instrument of choice in celebration of his special day.
                SHAMELESS PLUG: I’ll be signing copies of my book, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, at the Barnes & Noble on Erie Blvd. in Syracuse this Friday from 1-3. The hard-cover edition of the book sold out two printings last year and Triumph has published a paperback version this fall that includes a chapter on last year’s exciting and tumultuous season. If you’re in need of a holiday gift for that special someone, please stop by.
                HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all of you. I’m thankful for many things, including you taking the time to read my musings. Please take a moment tomorrow to pay gratitude for your blessings.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bills grasping for straws; Orange experience memorable weekend in football & hoops

I understand what Chan Gailey was trying to do by mentioning how the Giants were 7-7 and in danger of missing the playoffs last season before going on a torrid tear to win the Super Bowl.
                The beleaguered Bills coach was holding that carrot out for his team, which at 3-6 probably has to win six of its final seven to have a chance of making the playoffs in the mediocre AFC. But just like his team, Gailey’s analogy came up way short.
                 What the coach with the 13-28 record failed to mention, of course, is that the 2011 Giants were vastly superior, boasting a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback (Eli Manning) and a future Hall-of-Famer at coach (Tom Coughlin). The 2012 Bills, meanwhile, have two journeymen retreads at those positions.
                Each remaining game on Buffalo’s schedule (home-and-away vs. Miami, a road contest in Indy, home games against Jacksonville, St. Louis and the Jets and a home-away-from-home game in Toronto vs. Seattle) is winnable. But given the inconsistency of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the cataclysmic failures of a much-ballyhooed defense that can’t stop anybody, I don’t see this Bills team going anywhere but home following this underachieving season.
                And, given Buddy Nix’s track record so far in the draft, free agency and choice of coaches, I can’t see much reason to be optimistic that the post-season famine will end in 2013. Not unless, of course, owner Ralph Wilson decides to clean house once more.
                (For more of my takes on the Bills, please check out my Channel 8 column at
                Good weekend for Syracuse football and basketball. The football team thrashed previously unbeaten and highly ranked Louisville, 45-26, in a game in which all three Orange units were dominant. SU has to win one of its final two games – vs. Missouri or Temple – to become bowl eligible. The only sad thing about the rout of the Cardinals Saturday is that it was a reminder of what might have been had the Orange not practiced such self-destructive tendencies much of this season. An abundance of turnovers and penalties proved costly in close losses to Northwestern, Minnesota and Rutgers. Otherwise, SU easily could have been 8-2 at this juncture. But perhaps Doug Marrone’s team can salvage this season with a winning streak that includes a bowl victory.
                The backdrop for Sunday’s SU basketball victory against San Diego State on the aircraft carrier deck of the USS Midway was spectacular. But the windy conditions and sun-in-your-eyes shooting resulted in some ugly hoops. The Orange men adjusted nicely to the conditions, eschewing the low percentage, wind-blown jumpers for drives to the basket in a workmanlike 62-49 victory. Picking up where he left off last season, C.J. Fair filled up the stat sheet nicely with 17 points, 10 rebounds and two steals, and sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams had 17 points, four assists and four steals in his starting debut. SU is again going to be very good defensively. Sophomore center Rakeem Christmas had five of the Cuse’s 10 blocks and helped the back line of the zone alter at least 10 more shots.
                I like the concept of staging these outdoor games on the aircraft carriers, though two other contests had to be stopped because of condescension buildup on the courts. Like the NHL’s “Winter Classics” these events take the game back to its outdoor roots. Though, as we saw with the wind, I wouldn’t want to play too many of these games each season because the conditions pretty much preclude you from shooting from the outside. Just ask the Aztecs, who made only 1-of-18 3-pointers.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Carmen Basilio was a real-life Rocky Balboa with a marvelous sense of humor

                I’m sure somewhere up in heaven the late, two-time world boxing champion Carmen Basilio is making the rounds, regaling people with his salt-of-the-earth sense of humor – and impishly doling out a playful punch or two.
 Over the course of the 30-plus years I knew Carmen, I laughed often at his corny jokes and incurred a few bruises from those playful punches - "love taps" he called them. (Even into his late 60s, early 70s the ex-Marine still packed quite a wallop. I can’t imagine what it must have been like being on the receiving end of his not-so-friendly fists during his boxing prime.)
Carmen always was so down-to-earth, so genuine, a true character. I never met a boxer or any other athlete as accomplished as him for that matter who was so perpetually jovial. He truly loved life and loved people. I had witnessed the ring’s ravages on so many other boxers, how too many punches to the noggin had scrambled their minds and altered their personalities for the worse. Fortunately, Carmen, who had endured some of the most brutal bouts in boxing history, escaped many of the deleterious effects of pugilistic savagery.
In tribute to his passing yesterday at age 85, I offer the following excerpts from interviews I conducted with him through the years. The first is from my “Memories of Yankee Stadium” book. The second is from my book, “Jewel of the Sports World: The Hickok Belt Story.”
RIP, Carmen. And go easy on the "love taps."     
                While picking onions on the family farm as a boy growing up in upstate New York, Carmen Basilio would often day dream. A huge fan of heavyweight champion Joe Louis and the New York Yankees, Basilio fantasized about what it would feel like to box for a title in front of a huge crowd at the Stadium. On September 23, 1957, he found out, winning a punishing, 15-round split decision against the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson in front of 38,072 fans to become the middleweight champion of the world. The battle between the tall, stylish Robinson and the short, iron-jawed Basilio was named the fight of the year by Ring magazine and earned the "Canastota Clouter'' his biggest boxing payday ($211,629) and the 1957 Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete in America. To many boxing fans, Basilio, who finished his ring career with a 56-16-7 record, was a real-life Rocky Balboa.
                "Of all my fights - and I had some pretty good ones in my day - that one was the most special because it fulfilled a life-long dream of mine. And the check I received for that one didn't hurt either. When I was young, my father and I would listen to Joe Louis fights on the radio, and that's what planted the seed in my head about become a boxer. People told me I was foolish to want to become a boxer because it was a brutal occupation, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life picking onions in the hot summer heat. To me, that was more brutal than boxing.
                "Yankee Stadium was the captial of boxing back then. It became a place where a lot of the really big matches were fought back in the '20, '30s, '40s and '50s. Guys like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis and Rocky Mariciano and Sugar Ray fought there. Plus, being a fan of Yankees like Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, made fighting there special for me, too.
                "But there's one other reason why that win was so important to me. It helped me settle a grudge, and pay Sugar Ray back for snubbing me the way he did when I was just an up-and-comer. I remember standing outside the Statler Hotel in Times Square with my wife in 1952 when Robinson and his crew pulled up in this big, pink Cadillac. I was a boxing nobody at the time, and Sugar Ray was king. I told my wife, 'I'm going to introduce myself to him.' I said, 'Mr. Robinson, my name is Carmen Basilio, I just fought my second television fight.' Before I could  get another word out, he just blew by me. He made me feel like I was dirt beneath his feet. I was really pissed. I went back to my wife and said, 'One of these days I'm going to fight that son-of-a-bitch and I'm going to kick his ass.'
                "I wouldn't say I kicked his ass, but I did beat him up pretty good. My corner was worried that he was going to be awarded the victory because he was the champ and they say you have to knock out the champ in order to take the title away from him. They told me not to celebrate after the 15th round ended. But I wasn't worried. I knew I had convinced the judges that I controlled more of the fight than he did.
                "One other thing that night memorable: I got to dress in Casey Stengel's office for the fight. Through the years, I got to know Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, and some of the Yankees would come to my fights in the off-season. New York was a great sports town and a great boxing town back then. The people there always supported me well. I think they liked the fact that I was Italian and that I came from the working class and wasn't afraid to take a punch in order to land one. I think more people in that crowd at Yankee Stadium that night could relate to me than they could to a natural athlete like Sugar Ray. I was the underdog, and I was a guy who kept his mouth shut and let my fists do my talking. Sugar Ray was a great fighter, but he was arrogant, and that turned a lot of people off. I know it turned me off. But I was able to make him eat his words. He knew who the hell I was after that fight.''
On January 14, 1958, Basilio would pull off another upset when he won the Hickok Belt. Many thought Lew Burdette’s spectacular World Series pitching performance would catapult the Milwaukee Braves’ ace to the top spot. In fact, when he was contacted about the banquet, he assumed that he had won. But the majority of the voters assumed differently, casting 48 first-place ballots and 218 points for Basilio to 32 first-place votes and 186 points for Burdette. Williams, the Boston Red Sox slugger, finished third (22 firsts, 129 1-2 points).  When master of ceremonies Jerry Flynn called Basilio to the podium to receive the belt from Ray Hickok, the Manger Hotel crowd of 670 – including a few dozen from the boxer’s hometown, two hours to the east – rose to its feet and applauded loudly. “It’s the happiest day of my life,’’ he said, in a quavering voice. Basilio tried to go on, but he couldn’t. He began bawling, and as the tears of joy streamed down his cheeks, the appreciative dinner guests rose to their feet and cheered once more. “Of all the dinner moments that one was my favorite,’’ Flynn recalled years later. “It was like Carmen had reached the top of the mountain after a lifetime of trying and he couldn’t have been more grateful.’’
The banquet had gotten off to an emotional start when Rev. Bill Howard delivered the benediction. He had attended the first dinner in 1950 as one of the children afflicted with polio. The head table was even more star-studded than the year before. In addition to Basilio, Burdette and Brown, it featured Yankee stars Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron and Elston Howard; former heavyweight boxing champion; former Rochester Red Wings and future Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, a young psychologist who  received national recognition in 1955 after winning the top prize on the popular television quiz show, The $64,000 Question. (Interestingly, Brothers, a noted psychologist, won, based on her knowledge of boxing history. She wound up providing color commentary on CBS’ telecast of the Basilio-Robinson title fight and is believed to be the first woman to serve in that capacity on a boxing broadcast.)
Basilio was much more relaxed after receiving the award, signing autographs for fans and chatting with reporters. He chuckled each time someone told him he looked pretty good for a guy whose intrepid, always-on-the-offense boxing style resulted in him being the recipient of many punches to the head. “I hear that a lot,’’ he said, when asked about the ‘you-look-pretty-good-considering’ comments. “People see my pictures after a fight or while I’m fighting on television, and they figure I’m pretty well beat up. To begin with, I’m not what you call photogenic. Pictures that were taken right after a fight show bruises on my cheekbones and maybe puffiness around my eyes. And my nose swells up. If you add a cut eye or maybe some bleeding from the mouth or nose, it looks like I just lost a train wreck.’’ At one point during his conversation, Burdette stopped by to congratulate him. “If I had to be second to anyone,’’ the pitcher said, “I prefer it to be to you.’’