Sports Shorts

* Roger Bannister, R.I.P. In perpetuity. Along with your accomplishment. And its context.

Bannister, the British runner who in 1954 broke the four-minute barrier (3:59.4) in the mile, died last Saturday at 88. What he did was historic and incredible. But how he did it–and what he did afterward–are also incredibly memorable.

When Bannister made history on the track at Oxford University in front of some 1,200 spectators, he was a 25-year-old medical student. He was also part of an amateur–yes, amateur–post-graduate all-star running team. How quaint.

And after he broke that mystical barrier and made sports history, he went back to work. And then a few months later–at the peak of his prowess and international renown–he retired. He couldn’t stay a world-class athlete and become a physician, he would explain. Standards–and priorities–mattered. A distinguished career as a neurologist would ensue. He was also knighted.

Roger Bannister will be remembered for making history. For those in the know, he will also be recalled for doing everything the right way. He wasn’t the beneficiary of performance-enhancing drugs, he wasn’t subsidized, he ran on old-school, dirt tracks and he never “cashed in.” His feat of fame was between Olympics. He quit on top–and became a doctor. We’ll not see his kind–nor era–again.

* That was quite the devastating quote the other day from ESPN’s long-time hoops analyst Dick Vitale. “I don’t like the fraud that college basketball has become,” he said. Ouch.

Remember when the biggest, big-time college basketball issue was academic standards and who might flunk out? Now the very best players have no intention of finishing, have institutional enablers to get them through faux-student status and have access to de-facto, palm-greasing agents before committing.

* I’m one of those sports fans who reads all those page-two, small-print results, schedules and college rankings. The rankings are particularly interesting right now with basketball, baseball and hockey as staples. Basketball and baseball are all familiar names. Not so, college hockey. It’s beyond eclectic. Where else would Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State be in the same mix as St. Cloud State, Clarkson, Omaha and Union? BTW, St. Cloud State is No. 1. Go, Huskies.

Sports Short

* Talk about timing. Imagine, after having formally announced its preferred Ybor City site for a ball park–and needing to rally, among others, the business community for $upport–the Rays plummet into full, salary-cutting, tank mode. Even Evan Longoria, who no longer plays here, is audibly voicing his disappointment.

The Rays are arguably not as good as they were last year–which was their fourth consecutive losing season.

Tampa Bay’s Own

“I’m now one of you, a Lightning fan forever.”

That was what Vinny Lacavalier said to the sell-out crowd at Amalie Arena last Saturday as the Bolts retired his No. 4 jersey in a typically classy ceremony. Lacavalier is more than a franchise icon. He’s also a genuinely nice guy who loves living here. He’s Marty St. Louis without any familial elephants in the room.

Vinny and his wife Caroline are raising their three kids in Tampa. He does serious charity work with pediatric cancer and coaches youth hockey. He is Tampa Bay–not just Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sports Shorts

* Super Bowls, we were again reminded, are Sunday evening games preceded by week of entertainment, economic impact and marketing pizzazz. But Minneapolis–or New York–in early February!
Time was when the Roman-numeraled spectacles were the purview of weather-friendly Southern California, New Orleans, Miami or Tampa. But that was before stadium-construction/renovation became the main driver. But, hey, we get our next shot in three years. And those pricey, gigantic video screen/scoreboards and other RayJay amenities such as renovated club and suite areas were not exactly non-factors in awarding Tampa Bay SB LV. It is what it is. We’re fortunate we have a great venue with enviable February weather.
* When you watch pro football, including the Super Bowl, do you rationalize the game’s concussion cause-and-effect–or just put that on hold to enjoy the big game? Do you feel guilty? Awkward? Callous? Enabling? Hypocritical? Here’s another take.
“I have no problem watching the NFL–these are grown men making grown men’s decisions,” says former New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who exposed the concussion crisis. “After being kept in the dark for so many years by their employers, they now know they could wind up brain-damaged. … They’re professional daredevils. It wasn’t immoral to watch Evel Knievel. We watch stuntmen in movies.”
Never quite thought of it that way–although the risk-award factor is obvious, even if underplayed. But who would have thought the Wallenda family and pro football would wind up in the same sentence?
* Each Olympics there are new events added. No exception this year in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But co-ed curling?
* I’m no fan of the “one-and-done” era of college basketball. I think it’s a “hire-ed” sham. Most University of Kentucky fans, I’m sure, would disagree. They would probably appreciate the take of Warren K. Zola, a Boston College sports law expert, on UK’s high-profile “one-and-dones.” It’s a rationale we’ve heard before about certain student-athletes in certain revenue sports.
“If one accepts the premise that the purpose of college is to help students enter the workforce,” says Zola, “then students who play for one year then progress into the NBA could be considered a success.” One, however, should also be required to accept the premise that a university is much more than a selectively elevated trade school.
* Nice to see Bay Area golfer Brittany Lincicome in the winner’s’ circle again. The Seminole High grad, 32, recently won the Bahamas LPGA Classic for the second straight year. She’s also one of the nicest, down-to-earth athletes you’ll ever meet. Reportedly she’s still on track for early retirement. “Sometimes, I think I’ll retire at 35,” she said in an interview a few years back. “Buy a home on the water with a dock. The travel is hard.”
* Joe Maddon was in the news recently for more than hosting another big Bayshore Gasparilla party and still living next to Jill Kelly. He was honored in Tampa as Dreammaker of the Year by the Children’s Dream Fund for work related to pediatric cancer causes.

Sports Shorts

* After more than five seasons, veteran Lightning wing J.T. Brown is no longer a member of the Bolts. He was claimed off waivers by the Anaheim Ducks. Brown will be remembered in several ways. He was good, just not as good as hoped. He was the Bolts’ only African-American player. He was also the first player in the league to perform a silent racial protest during the national anthem. He raised a fist from the bench.

But he wasn’t done. He didn’t just raise the fist or kneel the knee. He literally got involved in police-community relations. He did ride-alongs with TPD officers to see patrol reality from their perspective. He also joined officers for trick-or-treating in Seminole Heights.

J.T. Brown was no star and ultimately came up short of expectations. But he showed social awareness, and he showed class. He was good for the Lightning and good for Tampa. Good luck, J.T.

* A lot of folks have an opinion on UCF’s perfect football season and whether the Knights were shortchanged by a system that precluded them from participating in  a national championship playoff. Here’s Bobby Bowden’s take: “If I were (UCF), I would be yelling just like them, celebrating an undefeated season and a national championship.”

* So I get this head’s up from my brother who still lives in Philly. He’s been told–by some geek-buddy-high school-football-archivist sort–that I actually hold a record at my alma mater, La Salle HS. It’s for the most TD catches in a decade, in this case the 1960s. It’s been verified. They can check stats and game films. I was blindsided. Back-in-the-day stuff. Who knew? But, well, kind of cool, I guess.

Then came an inevitable, O’Neillian punch line. The, uh, grand total was three. It was the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era. We ran the ball all the time. But, yeah, it still counts.

Sports Shorts

* When it comes to basketball at USF, there is the women’s team, a perennial contender for national ranking and post-season play, and what used to be the men’s team. It’s been a while since Charlie Bradley, Rodenko Dobras, Chucky Atkins and Dominique Jones.

The other night, the USF women hosted the University of Connecticut. While nobody expected an upset, there was an excited, expectant crowd of more than 6,600 at the Sun Dome hoping for a memorable performance against the iconic UConn Huskies. Alas, it was beyond forgettable.  It was a humiliating 100-49 loss. The challenge now for Bulls coach Jose Fernandez is to not let the ripple effect of embarrassment in front of the largest women’s crowd ever impact the rest of the season. Easier said than done.

* So Jon Gruden is back coaching the Raiders. It had been rumored and predicted for a while. Just a matter of adding a few more zeros to that long-term contract to woo “Chucky” out of the ESPN broadcast booth where he had found super-star billing.

Only one other subplot: The “Rooney Rule.” NFL Teams must include minority candidates in their interview pool. The Raiders complied, and the league confirmed. “I can tell you we believe the Rooney Rule was complied with,” said NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart. How’s that for parsing? Also call it the “Rooney Ruse” in this case.

* Given that the NFL suspended Tom Brady–TOM BRADY!–for four games over under-inflated footballs, it’s downright ominous to consider what might loom for Bucs QB Jameis Winston over that Uber groping charge nearly two years ago. And knowing that Winston has a friendly witness isn’t as consoling as it should be. It’s his former FSU teammate Ronald Darby, who’s now a defensive back with the Philadelphia Eagles. The same Darby who previously bore witness for Winston during that high-profile, sexual-assault case in 2012 that was eventually settled in civil court.

Nobody with the Bucs wants to see any more references to that infamous, Tallahassee police report. Especially the witness who was taking video on his cell phone. Disgusting.

Good luck, Dirk. You deserve better.

Sports Shorts

* It was a season for the ages in Orlando. UCF is the only undefeated team in the country. Its head coach, Scott Frost, stayed on and saw this incredible season through with his players before assuming the full-time position at Nebraska, his alma mater. Contrast that with the beyond-awkward transitions in Tallahassee and Gainesville. Then the Knights beat favored Auburn in the Peach Bowl.

Keep in mind that Auburn had previously beaten both Alabama and Georgia, who will now play for the national championship. Yeah, the American Athletic Conference is cachet-challenged and no match for the illustrious SEC. Except on the field. This season. Go, Knights. Keep it in the Corridor.

* “Don’t give up.” It’s as much a cliché as it is directive. But it shouldn’t be applicable when it comes to pro sports.

The Bucs, for example, were lauded, despite a disappointing 2017 season, for not giving up. As in nobody quit during a frustrating year when they could have. Say what? Praise for not giving up and continuing to do the job you’re overpaid to do? And shouldn’t any working definition of “professional” preclude even the temptation to not give your best?

“Don’t give up” works at the high school level with teenagers still playing a game–not at the “professional” level.

* Dirk Koetter is back to coach the Bucs in 2018. As he should. With a team not blindsided by injuries, he was 9-7 and barely missed the playoffs last year. This year, with a team blindsided by injuries–and not enough help from his general manager–he was 5-11. There’s a pattern. He deserves a third year.

* Call it a Tampa Bay trifecta: How cool is it that a local kid, Nigel Harris, can play for Hillsborough High, USF and the Bucs. That had never happened before this season.

* Maybe it’s overreacting to bad publicity, including the controversy over national anthem protests, or maybe it’s just that the NFL wants to distance itself from the “No Fun League” label that a number of players and marketers have affixed. Whatever the rationale, the league has lifted its on-field partying ban this season. End zone choreography is not just allowed, it’s now celebrated, especially in the broadcast booth, where replays are not limited to, well, plays. Will this be permanent or Not For Long? Bet on permanent. This is the entertainment business–and plenty of players, fans and network execs like it.

* Buccaneer retrospection: The Bucs fired Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. Still weird.

Sports Shorts

This still seems weird. You pick up the Sunday sports section of the Tampa Bay Times and you are reminded–starting with the front page–of a certain athletic hierarchy. Pro football is first. Nothing else is close. Context doesn’t matter.

It obviously remains must-reading for lots of sports fans. And there’s always something to write–formulaically–about. As in: Let’s double down on further rehashing this disappointing, stormy Bucs’ season that’s turned into a Dirk Koetter soap opera. Let’s also preview the inconsequential Carolina Panthers game as well as preview all other Week 16 games. It’s the way it’s always been done. Pro football is ubiquitous in the culture.

Then on pages 8-9 there is coverage of the previous night’s Lightning win over the Minnesota Wild before another loud, sold-out Amalie Arena crowd.

Ironically, the Lightning are the best team in the NHL. And the Bolts actually played–they weren’t just being previewed and over-analyzed. That Minnesota win by what could be a best-ever Bolts franchise got them coverage right before the weather page. A shutout account right before the allergens update.

And, BTW, USF won its bowl game the previous day over Texas Tech. The Bulls finished 10-2; no USF team has ever had a better record. It got them page 6 coverage. It is what it is.

* The Christmas Day schedule of televised sports events included five NBA games and two NFL games. What a holiday tradition.

* It was vintage tabloid–as well as a fitting farewell. The Tampa Bay Times headline announcing the impactful, emotional departure of Rays third baseman–and franchise avatar–Evan Longoria: “So Longo.”

Sports Shorts

When the New York Yankees signed Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton for more than three times the Rays entire payroll, I thought of two words. No, not some knee-jerk, obscene imperative, although I do dislike the Yankees. But “salary cap.” MLB needs one so that everybody plays by the same rules. Other professional sports do it. Sure, MLB has a luxury tax, but only luxuriating franchises pay it, the cost of doing business in competition with teams with far less resources.

Sports Shorts

* It’s that time of year in college football: coaching changes and bowl bids.

As for the former, imagine–for now–Gainesville, Tallahassee and Orlando impacted in the same year. And what a contrast between FSU and UCF. Jimbo Fisher is going to Texas A&M for more money and less prestige. His grumpy exit, which did not include coaching FSU’s last regular season game, was less than classy.

Scott Frost leaving UCF for Nebraska is understandable. He grew up there, went to high school there and quarterbacked the Huskers to a national championship in 1997. Plus, he handled the awkward situation with his players, president and media with class while leading his team to an undefeated season and a major bowl bid. In two years, UCF went from 0-12 to 12-0. UCF is as grateful as it is disappointed.

* The final College Football Playoff rankings have UCF at 12. The 11 teams ranked higher include five two-loss teams and one (Auburn) three-loss team. The Knights deserve better.

* We’re reminded again that there are too many (38) bowls and, thus, too many (76) participants who shouldn’t be rewarded for lackluster seasons. FSU, for example. The 6-6 Seminoles have to beat Southern Mississippi in Shreveport, Louisiana’s Independence Bowl to avoid a losing season. Ridiculous.

* We know Oregon’s Willie Taggart, formerly of Western Kentucky and USF, is still a hot commodity. He has a track record of turning around programs. At USF, the Bulls went 8-5 and 10-2 in his last two seasons. Only one anomaly. Has there ever been a hot commodity coach with a losing record?  Overall, he’s 47-50, including 24-25 at USF.

* Whenever prominent college coaches get fired, there’s often an issue about a “buy out” clause  and whether somebody was fired for “cause.” Let’s get real, at the highest level, college coaching–reflected in often obscene salaries–is all about winning and its economic ripple effects. Coaches are bought to win. Shouldn’t not winning enough be sufficient “cause” for firing?