Saturday, July 31, 2010

Louis Leblanc Signing Adds to NCAA's Problems

Earlier this week, two Minnesota Gophers left school early to play hockey for money.

Now, the NCAA has taken another mid-summer hit, as Harvard sophomore Louis Leblanc has decided to bolt from college for pro hockey.

Leblanc signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Montreal Canadiens Friday. The contract means Leblanc is no longer eligible for hockey, and it sounds like he will play for the Montreal Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

There have been a lot of college players who have left school since June 1. As I wrote when Ryan McDonagh of Wisconsin decided to turn pro in June, this is an issue for the NCAA, whether they want to admit it or not.

Yes, coaches are typically prepared for these departures. They recruit players for commitments years in advance, and they are often able to bring players in a year earlier than planned of developments merit such a move.

In the case of Leblanc, it seems highly unlikely that Harvard coach Ted Donato can reach into the future to fill this void. After all, it's Harvard. Players don't get athletic scholarships there, and they don't sign letters of intent as a result. They also don't get highly-touted players like Leblanc very often anymore, so even if they can fill his roster spot, they can't make up for the loss of a talented player this late in the offseason.

It's an argument for what I now believe college hockey needs: a firm deadline after which players can no longer leave early to turn pro. I also think I have a floating date that will be agreeable to all parties.

Yes, I said "a floating date," implying that it's not a hard, line-in-the-sand sort of thing.

My proposal -- for now -- is to impose a rule giving pro teams 60 days from the end of a team's season to sign players with remaining eligibility.

For example, UMD's season ended March 21, when they weren't selected for the NCAA Tournament, an even they were eligible for because they finished the season with a winning record. Any of the teams in Division I who end their season over .500 and don't qualify for the NCAAs will have their 60-day window begin on this day.

Teams finishing under .500 begin their 60-day clock on the day they play their last game.

The 16 teams in the NCAAs will start their clock on the day they lose and are eliminated, or on the day they win the national championship.

This means the window will close on a different day for many teams. It means the Frozen Four teams will have to sweat out early departures until early June.

It's probably not a perfect idea, but it's better than the system we have in place now. It's unlike what you see in any other sport.

In football, players have until a specified date to declare their eligibility for the NFL Draft. They don't get to leave early after that date unless there are extenuating circumstances (academically ineligible, kicked out of school, etc.). In the NBA, there is a similar date, and players can actually return to school before the NBA Draft if they don't hire an agent. In baseball, drafted players can't wait forever to sign with their team.

They shouldn't be able to in hockey, either.

The NCAA needs to fight for a drop-dead date on early signings. It would help the sanity of their head coaches, and it would pressure NHL teams to make up their minds about the future of their prospects.

Of course, this could hurt the NCAA in the end, too, because there is no such drop-dead date in major juniors, and teams could simply push their college prospects to go major junior so they have more control over them deeper into the summer and fall.

So maybe this drop-dead date isn't such a good idea after all.

Ugh. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Friday, July 30, 2010

NASCAR Shows True Colors

While the sport is marred by start-and-park cars stealing chances to race and win actual prize money away from teams that really want to race, by a racecar that doesn't allow for actual racing, television broadcasters who are more concerned with selling commercials than serving fans of the sport, and a great abundance of empty seats at races, NASCAR continues to drag its feet and waste its time on petty battles.

The latest attempt by NASCAR to mask its true problems was a pair of fines levied recently to drivers. These drivers -- not identified by NASCAR -- were accused of saying things publicly that could cause damage to the sport's image.

(Meanwhile, Phil Parsons and his race team continue to steal spots in races and prize money from people who want to race, all so they can park their cars on lap 20 and claim a vibration as the reason. This apparently doesn't damage NASCAR. Yes, this makes me bitter. Sorry.)

As the Sprint Cup Series prepares to run at Pocono this weekend, we have learned the identities of the two drivers: Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

Each were reportedly fined $50,000, though neither confirmed that amount Friday in separate media sessions. Newman hinted his fine was due to comments made after the spring Cup race at Talladega.

Newman said in April that winning was "a lottery, racing for a championship shouldn't be a lottery." He added the wreck-heavy races at Talladega "affect our championship because it's not racing."

He was one of a few drivers Friday who blamed the media for stirring up controversy and an easy willingness to criticize the sport. Newman suggested if he was left alone for a few moments after his wreck instead of being instantly forced to answer questions, he might have cooled down and not been so quick to pop off.

"When you get a microphone stuck in your face when the adrenaline's still rushing, don't expect everything to be positive," Newman said.

Newman, of course, could have said "No comment," or simply refused to speak, as driver Juan Pablo Montoya did Sunday after a controversial call by his crew chief took him out of the lead in the Brickyard 400.

Instead, Newman -- always, it seems, willing to give a quote -- spoke freely and willingly after his wreck at 'Dega, and now he is blaming the media for getting in trouble?

The bigger problem here is NASCAR. If they don't like what Newman said, they have the power to change how the superspeedway races are run. They're a safety hazard, and they are indeed a lottery. I've said that for years. You don't have to have the best car to win a restrictor-plate race. You have to have a good car and get a good drafting partner. It's not like winning at Martinsville or Bristol or Richmond or even Vegas.

You know, the real tracks.

Anyway, if NASCAR wants to penalize guys for being honest, they're going to have a long remainder of the season. I doubt Newman is going to stop.

For that matter, neither is Hamlin, who believes he was hit by NASCAR because of a conversation he had with SB Nation blogger Jeff Gluck on Twitter.

@dennyhamlin (to his fans): Truthfully I don't think It matters to the fans who wins the race as long as its a good "show". Even if it comes as the expense of competition

@dennyhamlin: I'm listening to your comments.. Ok if ur fav driver is out of contention and leader is on his way to winning with 10 to go. Would u like to see nascar tighten it up or let the best car win? Please reply.

@dennyhamlin: ok too many reply's to give a true count but its about 80% let it go 20% tighten it up.. thanks for the info. i was courious what u thought

@jeff_gluck: Personally I don't think they're not all being honest w/you or themselves. When the leader is running away fans BEG for caution

@dennyhamlin: big difference in legit and not.. im not saying dont throw a caution when a guy is in the way.. come on dude..

@jeff_gluck: And btw, I say "Tighten it up." I want to see an exciting finish...if cars get torn up, it just adds drama.

@dennyhamlin: i mean when a guy is in the wall.. and of course people wanna see a caution. Not a fake one tho.

@dennyhamlin: AND. fyi that debris caution caused over 500k in damage to 10 wrecked racecars at the end of that race. no big deal huh?

Gluck is advocating -- reasonably -- for the idea that NASCAR should "tighten up" races late with possibly fake cautions. It might be fake drama, but it's still drama, I guess.

Hamlin tried to poll his fans, but I think Gluck is right. Unless a fan's favorite driver is winning, they want a late caution and a green-white-checkered or two. That's good television, and it usually leads to good racing.

(Note: If Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson are running out front, virtually every fan of the sport wants a late caution to tighten up the field. It's a safe bet that most anyone who says they don't agree with this is a liar.)

Gluck told he regrets the way it played out, even though this wasn't his fault.

"They say drivers want to express personalities and show how they feel," he said. "I worry about that now. I thought it was a legitimate debate... that's what's alarming. Denny speaks up, I speak up about something, and instead of NASCAR taking a look at what could be changed, they shoot the messenger."

That's left Hamlin lighter in the wallet, joking, "I better play the lotto" to make up for lost cash. But despite the scrutiny, Hamlin maintains he'll still be using Twitter in the future -- albeit being a bit more careful about what he says.

"When I started this whole Twitter thing a long time ago, I said, 'I was never going to sell out.'" he explained. "I was going to always say what I wanted to say, this, that, and the other thing ... but the more followers you get, the more people -- especially up in that tower that start following you and seeing what you're saying. It goes out to a lot of people, and a lot of race fans. Out of 35,000 or so that follow me, 30 of them are true race fans that watch the sport week in and week out. So they are the heartbeat of our sport, and I guess they don't need me influencing them and saying that we need to work on a lot of things."

(To his credit, Hamlin plans to continue being honest. That's cool, and it could be costly.)

Sorry, NASCAR, but you're showing your true colors here, and the primary is yellow. What are they afraid of?

There is no reason to stifle honest opinions coming from veteran drivers who have the track records of Newman and Hamlin. The greater harm that can be done to the sport is to continue trying to sweep problems under the rug. Every time NASCAR fines a driver for honesty, they risk further alienating fans who see and understand the very real problems facing their sport.

Problems NASCAR is either ignoring or just can't figure out how to handle.

Braves Pitcher Wins Appeal After Throwing at Prince Fielder

Baseball's system for appealing suspensions is pretty stupid. Players can keep playing for what can sometimes be weeks while Major League Baseball drags their feet on hearing an appeal. Rarely are suspensions revoked completely, though they often will reduce the time a player has to sit out.

In the case of Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jonny Venters, it seemed like a pretty simple case. Venters was involved in an incident July 17 against the Milwaukee Brewers. I'd show you video, but Major League Baseball thinks it's still 1954, and they won't allow people to embed game video.

To sum it up, Venters apparently got confused, thinking that home plate doubled as Prince Fielder's backside. The first pitch went over his head, and the second one hit him in the back.

Did I mention that it was 6-3 at the time in favor of the Brewers, and they had been knocking the Braves around for a couple straight nights?

Baseball initially decided this was intentional, and they suspended Venters for four games. Upon further review, there was apparently nothing wrong with Venters' behavior.

In what could be one of the dumbest things MLB has done in years, Venters' suspension was revoked Friday.


Not reduced.


From four games to zero.


It’s common for suspensions to be reduced, but not thrown out entirely. The decision came from John McHale Jr., Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of administration. Manager Bobby Cox, who participated in Tuesday’s hearing, was thrilled with the ruling.

“It was not intentional,” he said of the incident with Fielder. “It was completely accidental.”

During the 90-minute hearing., Venters and several Braves officials spoke, including general manager Frank Wren, Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell.

“I just kind of explained what happened,” Venters said, “that I understood why we were there, how it looked, but that I’m not that kind of player. Guys who know me know I’m not that kind of player.”

The team’s video coordinator showed other errant pitches Venters threw this season, in situations where there would clearly have been no intent to throw at batters. Cox said Venters had hit more than 30 batters in his pro career, all but one left-handed (Fielder bats left-handed).

“That’s just the way I miss, the way the ball [travels],” Venters said.

Venters and Cox were both ejected after Venters hit Fielder in the back with a sinking fastball in the eighth inning. The ejections came after the home-plate umpire issued a warning following the pitch before, a slider over Fielder’s head.

This should serve as a lesson for pitchers all over baseball.

If you want to get away with throwing at hitters, simply fling a few wild pitches here and there, then loop some video of them together when you get in trouble.

Baseball's brass actually believes Venters happened to miss high and tight with consecutive pitches ... and it happened to be against one of the opponent's best power hitters, who had happened to hit a bomb in his previous at-bat.

It's a joke.

We saluted Brewers manager Ken Macha for finally getting pissed off enough to say something last week, but this is one of those moments where we wish we still had Ned Yost to kick around. No way Ned allows his guys to be thrown at as much as Fielder and Rickie Weeks have been this season. It's ridiculous that they get plunked this much, but it's even worse that it took so long for Macha to finally take his frustration public.

What's even more ridiculous is that baseball continues to make mind-boggling decisions that fly against player safety.

Want to throw at hitters' heads? Go ahead, as long as you've been wild before, so your video guy can spend way too much time putting together a defense tape.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Gophers Lose Two More

Not much has been going right for the Minnesota Gopher hockey program. They hadn't left the state in 20 years for a first-round WCHA playoff series until they headed to Grand Forks in March. That was their second road trip for a first-round series in three years, and they've now missed a Final Five and been knocked out in the play-in game over the last two years.

Making matters worse, close rivals UMD and North Dakota each won three games in three days to win the last two Final Five titles.

Oh, and Minnesota has hosted NCAA regionals in each of the last two years, seasons in which they missed the NCAA Tournament.

What appeared to be a relatively calm offseason for early departures has blown up on the Gophers recently. They have seen two forwards decommit, they reported ticked off another prospect when they told him to stay in juniors one more year, and now we learn of two early departures involving active players.

The first was announced officially by the Gophers themselves early Tuesday afternoon. Forward Josh Birkholz, a sophomore, was apparently about to get suspended for "violating team rules" (use your imagination, I guess). Instead of sitting out however many games, Birkholz is taking his talents elsewhere.

Birkholz "has decided to leave the program," the school announced in a terse statement that offered no further comment. Reports have him heading to the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips, a Canadian major junior team. His college eligibility will be relinquished with the move.

It's unclear if the Florida Panthers -- who drafted Birkholz in the third round in 2009 -- had anything to do with this decision. If so, it's sad that the pro team stepped in and kept a college team from instituting discipline. Shipping him to the WHL teaches him nothing about what he did wrong -- whatever it was.

Birkholz wasn't the only player Minnesota lost today. The long-rumored signing of defenseman Nick Leddy by the Chicago Blackhawks has apparently happened. Leddy was traded by the Wild in the Cam Barker deal, then apparently had a heck of a prospect camp for Chicago. Since the Blackhawks are strapped on the salary cap, and the Gopher program is in tatters, it makes sense to start his professional clock maybe a year earlier than expected. Chicago needs cheap options for depth, and Leddy was a player who got better on a pretty mediocre team last season.

Since Chicago has typically been very supportive of college players, it makes me want to read more into this than there probably is. Reality is that Chicago has lost a lot of players because of the salary cap at the NHL level. The pressure is on for prospects to make an impact to keep the team competitive. That puts pressure on the scouts to replenish the system with more prospects to keep things moving in the organization.

Of course, you could also say they looked at the prospect in this case (Leddy), saw a program where things haven't been going well, and they convinced him to bail for his own good (and, ultimately, the Blackhawks' own good, too).

Either way, the Gophers' task of getting back on the good side of the WCHA's home-ice ledger just got more difficult. It was bad enough that the seventh-place team from 2009 saw two teams come into the league that could immediately be at least as good as them (Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha).

Now, head coach Don Lucia, with obvious pressure on him to right the ship, has to make due without a player who was going to be one of his top defensemen.

They haven't fallen as far as, say, Michigan football, but the Gophers don't appear to be on the rise this winter. It could be a very difficult season for Minnesota. That they could have two of those in a row is quite the rarity.

Why Brett Favre Gets Away With It

As the Minnesota Vikings prepare to launch training camp in the bustling metropolis of Mankato this weekend, they still don't have their starting quarterback.

While Brett Favre takes spins around his property on his trusty tractor, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels will see increased practice reps.

(That's why Brett's staying away. He's trying to help the Vikings prepare for what will happen in 11 years when he retires.)

Favre's absence is a talked-about topic. It was last year, and then it was again when he showed up on his white horse in mid-August. While we wait for what is almost certainly going to be another late arrival, people are discussing Favre's ability to stay away.

As I wrote after minicamp, the Vikings are certainly treating Favre differently than they are Adrian Peterson. While it may have put head coach Brad Childress in a bit of a pickle after his public rebuke of Peterson for his decision to skip minicamp, it makes sense on many levels.

Jared Allen did an interview with Ed Werder of ESPN, and after some of the standard Jared Allen fare, Werder asked him about the Favre/Peterson stuff.

Allen was quick to say Favre has put in 21 years, and his situation is a lot different than Peterson's. While Allen admitted Peterson is a superstar, it's clear he feels Favre deserves a little more rope because of his age, experience, and contributions to the game.

He also brought up a really good point. He told Werder that, as a defensive player, it doesn't matter to him who is taking the quarterback reps during camp.

"I can't him anyway," Allen said.

Well, duh. I suppose they all look the same from a distance in those stupid red jerseys, eh?

Allen added that he was cool with whatever, as long as the quarterback showed up for games.

It's an interesting point. Allen has always struck as a bit of an odd duck, but if his stance is similar to his teammates, you can easily see why Favre is feeling no pressure to show up for camp.

As for the offensive players, well they made it work last year, when no one allegedly knew what was going to happen until it happened. Even if they knew, it wasn't like any of them had spent extensive time playing with Favre before. Brett showed up, and everything went amazingly well from the start.

This time, the team -- outside of a couple minor new faces -- has a full season of playing with Favre, and it's hard to believe they would have any struggles making this work, no matter when he shows up.

I'm still betting on Aug. 16-18 or so. That puts him on track to play in two preseason games before the Vikings open the regular season in New Orleans Sept. 9.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Start and Park Drivers Continue Quest to Ruin NASCAR

As we mentioned not long after the Daytona 500 in February, NASCAR has a major issue on its hands.

Every race weekend, there are numerous teams that show up at tracks for either a Camping World Truck Series race, a Nationwide Series race, or a Sprint Cup Series race, and they have no intention of even trying to compete to win the race.

The plan? Run a few laps, park the car, avoid using a bunch of tires, and collect the purse money for a last-place finish, which is enough to fund the team for another week.

In the meantime, these so-called start-and-park teams are taking spots in races away from legitimate operations that intend to run all the laps as long as the car is moving forward.

Sunday, the Sprint Cup cars ran at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the hallowed grounds of racing. That apparently wasn't enough for a handful of cars who decided to park early for no real good reason.

Naturally, it's the same suspects as it is every week. But you're supposed to believe these problems were legitimate. Yes, NASCAR makes the teams give an excuse for dropping out, but there's no way you can believe these excuses when the same teams are pulling out of every race around the same time with the same excuses.

NASCAR scribe Jeff Gluck probed for some explanations as to why so many drivers cited fishy reasons for pulling out of one of the sport's major events.

TODD BODINE, finished 37th. Official reason: Rear gear. "We had a vibration in the gearbox, and it got to rattling so bad, I had to park it." Total laps: 52; total money: $134,675.

DAVE BLANEY, finished 41st. Official reason: Electrical. "We had a transmission problem in practice and it just kept getting worse. So we pulled it out." Total laps: 20; total money: $134,225.

JOE NEMECHEK, finished 40th. Official reason: Vibration. "In that first-lap accident, we got into the grass. We broke the splitter and knocked the bottom end out of the radiator. We fixed those, but we picked up a vibration we couldn't get rid of." Total laps: 33; total money: $134,375.

MICHAEL MCDOWELL, finished 42nd. Official reason: Overheating. "I got caught up in that first-lap accident. We must have stuffed some dirt into the carburetor. We tried to clean the carburetor, but it didn't work." Total laps: 19; total money: $134,125.

Look at all that money being flushed to these lame, no-effort teams.

Instead of trying to compete, the philosophy is to get in the race, and then get out as fast as possible without anyone noticing. For the first 19 races, FOX and TNT allowed the teams to hide their start-and-park ways, as announcers Mike Joy and Adam Alexander rarely -- if ever -- called out teams who pulled behind the wall early in the race.

ESPN's Marty Reid won't lie to the viewers. Instead of pretending the stands are full, or that all the teams in the race are actually trying to win, Reid is honest and forthright. Car No. 66 is a start and park. The grandstands are amazingly empty for such a huge event.

Thanks, Marty. If only NASCAR were this upfront about their inherent problems.

Maybe something would be done.

As for the start and parks, the solution is simple. No race team is so incompetent as to get a vibration, or a tire problem, or an engine issue, or an overheating in every race. NASCAR needs to put a limit on the number of times a team is allowed to run less than the full race and still get their prize money.

Either that, or a blanket rule needs to be put in place mandating that teams that fail to run at least a fourth of the scheduled laps doesn't get prize money. Ever.

Reality is that would undeservedly punish a lot of race teams, but it's time for NASCAR to do something. If they don't, the bottom line is that the sport won't grow, won't get better, and won't ever thrive the way it used to.

Done Pissing Off SEC Coaches, Lane Kiffin Pisses Off NFL Coach

In this writer's oft-humble opinion, Lane Kiffin's missteps in his year at Tennessee were seriously overblown, for the most part. Stoking the fires of a dying rivalry -- dying because Tennessee was no longer capable of being competitive -- with Florida wasn't exactly the worst thing anyone has ever done. Neither was calling out Urban Meyer as a smarmy weasel. He's a big-time college football coach. Of course he's a smarmy weasel.

Kiffin moved on to USC when Pete Carroll left and no one else wanted the job.

(Seriously. Rumor has it USC even offered the gig to O.J. Simpson first. Heh.)

Anyway, Kiffin's new program has found itself in some hot water. USC is on probation -- nothing Kiffin did, ironically -- and now there's talk that Reggie Bush may have to give back his Heisman Trophy from 2005. The school is sending back their replica of it. Oh, and Mike Garrett is out in favor of former player-turned-Notre Dame homer Pat Haden.

Most recently, Kiffin found himself in need of a new assistant coach. With the position of offensive coordinator open on the USC staff, he reached out to the NFL, poaching Tennessee Titans running backs coach Kennedy Pola, just days before the start of training camp.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher -- who apparently never received a courtesy call asking for permission to speak with his contracted assistant coach -- is not pleased with Kiffin.
"I'm very disappointed in Lane Kiffin's approach to this. Typically speaking, when coaches are interested in hiring or discussing potential employment from coaches on respective staffs there is a courtesy call made from the head coach or athletic director indicating there is an interest in talking to the assistant. So I am very disappointed in the lack of professionalism on behalf of Lane."

Naturally, Kiffin is saying he didn't contact Pola about the gig until Friday, and he tried to get a hold of Fisher about it. Of course.

Here's the problem: He knows when NFL training camps start. He knows the difficult position this type of move puts the Titans and Fisher in.

Moreover, he knows Fisher is a Trojan. He went to USC. His name came up when Carroll left. He's one of the most respected coaches in the NFL.

Does Kiffin think he can win any kind of PR war against Fisher? This is like bringing boxing gloves and a box cutter to a gun fight. Good luck, Lane.

Perhaps Kiffin feels the best way to success in coaching is to get every other coach on Earth to hate your guts. If that's the case, he's doing a great job.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

It's Official: The Brewers Suck

I haven't seen anything like this in a long time.

As a lifelong Brewers fan, I've seen a lot of bad, bad baseball. Most of the Phil Garner era would qualify, and that Davey Lopes-led disaster is on the list.

But what we've seen in the last four days is off the charts.

The Brewers have lost three of their last four, and they've been spectacularly bad in doing so. Things have gone so poorly that the team had to lean on a guy who hadn't won a major league game in three years to win them a ballgame.

Outside of that, nothing.

In fact, this is worse than nothing.

Establishing a new low point in an already discouraging season, the Brewers were crushed, 15-3, by the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, with left-hander Randy Wolf getting pummeled for 13 hits and 12 runs in 5 2/3 innings.

... The one starting pitcher not ravaged over the last four games, Chris Capuano (one run in five innings on Monday), was subsequently removed from the rotation. That’ll teach him to be effective.

For a historical perspective on the awfulness of the Brewers’ pitching this week, the Elias Sports Bureau confirmed that no major-league team had three starters allow at least 10 runs over a four-game span since the St. Louis Browns in July 1937. Manny Parra, Dave Bush and Randy Wolf, meet Oral Hildebrand, Elon “Chief” Hogsett and Jim Walkup.

Perhaps it was karma that the Browns originated as the Milwaukee Brewers of the American League in 1901.

Seriously. It's that bad.

Wolf was a colossal waste of money. It's hard to question the signing, because this team's pitching was so bad a year ago. However, one has to start to wonder if the Brewers would have been better off rebuilding from scratch with the pitching staff.

At no point has it looked like the Brewers were capable of winning with the team they have in place. This team has been pretty awful from the get-go, and if they're not going to get any better very fast, it's time to talk trades.

I'd say Doug Melvin might as well start burning the phones. It's time.

Favre Stokes Drama With Talk of Weight

What are we going to do next year, when there's an NFL lockout in the summer, and no training camp for us to talk about Brett Favre in?

Better yet, what will Brett do? With people worried about there possibly being no NFL at all, how is he going to get the word out about his retirement drama?

Last year, it was his shoulder. This year, the ankle just isn't enough.

Now, Brett has introduced talk of his physical condition, as we all await with our breath held news of his decision to play football again in 2010. Instead of just announcing that he'll grace the inferior fans of the Minnesota Vikings with his godly presence for yet another campaign, Brett keeps stringing everyone along.

Wednesday, the Great One gave an interview in Mississippi, and for the first time, he revealed that he's possibly not exercised as much as usual since the Vikings' season went up in smoke thanks to Sidney Rice.

He told a reporter he's "gained 14 pounds since January. I need to lose a little weight anyway."

So that's why he's practicing with the high school kids again. Just getting that old body back in shape so it's not so hard to ride the tractor, I guess.

At some point, it seems we're going to hear Brett make some more comments in the next two weeks about how he's not in very good shape. He'll lose a few pounds, report to the Vikings, then we'll hear some sandbagging about how he feels old and slow.

Then he'll have another Pro Bowl season.

Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Report: Jake Youso Decommits From Gopher Hockey Program

This hasn't been a particularly good couple years for Minnesota Gopher hockey.

They've had two straight NCAA misses -- in years Minnesota was scheduled to host regionals -- to go along with the fact that they've played one game in the Final Five over the last two years (a 2-1 play-in game loss to UMD in 2009).

It was a birthright for the Gophers and their dedicated fans before. This program doesn't miss the NCAAs, they always host first-round series in the WCHA playoffs, and they don't miss the Final Five. Now, they've missed two straight NCAAs, missed most of the last two Final Fives, and the Gophers have played on the road for the WCHA playoffs two of the last three years.

This is hardly what we have come to know from the Minnesota program. The fall has been more stunning than what Rich Rodriguez has pulled off with Michigan football. At least there are excuses -- full coaching change, different style of play -- for Michigan. The Gophers have gone from 60 to zero in about three years after dominating college hockey for a long time.

Lately, we've seen cracks developing in the armor ... the kinds of things that point to this being more than just a minor blip in the program's long and storied history. Players have left early at an amazing rate, some of whom weren't exactly ready to leave. A defenseman -- Sam Lofquist -- bolted during the season for major juniors last year. The year before, then-freshman forward Michael Dorr -- who had already bailed on his UMD commitment a few years prior -- decided he wasn't playing enough, so he transferred to Minnesota State.

This summer, the Gophers have lost recruits, and they may have pissed another off.

Ryan Walters was told to get back in the USHL, so he decommitted and went to Nebraska-Omaha. Highly-touted Seth Ambrosz doesn't seem terribly pleased about being sent back to juniors, something we reported on a few weeks back.

(At the time, we were led to believe this was a mutual decision. More recent reporting makes it sound like a Don Lucia-driven decision, and one Ambroz and his family are not happy about.)

Now, word comes from Roman Augustoviz that former International Falls Bronco Jake Youso has decommitted.

Roman tweeted that Youso is eligible for a third year of juniors, but it doesn't seem he wants to go that route. At 20, Youso wants to play college hockey.

He apparently wasn't going to do that at Minnesota, where the Gophers have too many forwards and not enough ice time. It's the same reason Ambroz is going to play in the USHL one more year (assuming the CHL leeches don't latch on), and it's why Walters is headed to Omaha to play for Dean Blais.

Augustoviz tweeted Monday about the Ambroz decision, and he noted that Lucia has just two years left on his contract. Athletic director Joel Maturi has expressed support publicly, but there has been nothing leaked to the public about contract talks.

That would indicate perhaps a bit less support and more pressure than anyone will talk about in the open. Lucia needs to win. He knows he needs to win, and he figures he's better off trying to win with a more experienced group of forwards and a limited number of newcomers.

Of course, we might not be done. There are rumblings that another departure could be on the way soon. Speculation centered around sophomore defenseman Nick Leddy, who was so-so as a freshman for the Gophers but had an impressive prospect camp with the Chicago Blackhawks. Minneapolis Star Tribune Wild writer Michael Russo shot that speculation down -- at least for now.

If the exodus isn't complete, the Gophers' fall down the WCHA ladder might not be, either.

Brewers Win One 'For Cappy'

May 7, 2007, was a long time ago.

It's been over three years. In that amount of time, so much has changed. Not just in baseball, but in the world. New president, new problems, new fads, new technology.

For Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano, enough was enough.

Capuano has dealt with two Tommy John surgeries on his left elbow. There was a time where people wondered if he would ever pitch again.

Monday night, Capuano got his first win in over three years, as the Brewers toppled Pittsburgh 3-1.

Manager Ken Macha said Sunday that Capuano would be limited to under 70 pitches in this start, and he told the media he would be thrilled to get four innings out of Capuano. The plan was for Carlos Villanueva, a former starter, to pitch into the seventh, thus lessening the strain on an oft-overworked bullpen.

Capuano did his manager one better, getting through five innings while throwing 65 pitches. From there, a Rickie Weeks two-run home run gave the Brewers a 3-1 lead in the sixth, and Capuano was in line for the win.

Afterward, it was clear how important this was to Capuano and his teammates. After all, it's hard to get around a streak of 30 major-league appearances without a win.

“I surprised myself with how much I was aware of it,” said Capuano, who got a new perspective on winning and losing when he wasn’t sure he’d ever pitch again.

... When he was done, Capuano retreated to the clubhouse to fetch his iPod, trying to soothe his anxiety with some relaxing music as he watched a succession of four relievers cover the final four innings. Things got a bit tense in the ninth when the Pirates put two on with no outs against closer John Axford, who responded by striking out Brewer-killer Ryan Doumit and Ryan Church before retiring Ronny Cedeno on a grounder to second.

Axford, who converted his 12th save in 12 chances, said the relievers were aware of what was at stake for Capuano after Rickie Weeks’ two-run homer in the top of the sixth snapped a 1-1 tie.

“When we went ahead, 3-1, we said, ‘Let’s do this for ‘Cappy,’” said Axford. “When you look at what he’s gone through, for Cappy to persevere is a testament to him. It’s unbelievable. It really is.”

... “It’s going to be pretty tough to get me down tonight,” said Capuano, whose only other start came on June 3 in Florida after returning to the majors. “That was a really nice gift from the team.

“I have a long view with baseball now. Wins and losses become a lot less important when you’re faced with ‘Am I going to pitch again?’ It puts all that stuff in perspective. I’m just really happy to get (a victory) with the Brewers.”

It's a nice story during what has been a dreadful season for Milwaukee. Capuano might not do much else this season, but he's proven he can win at this level.

More importantly, he showed great heart and moxie just making it back to the bigs after all the adversity he's experienced.

Theories Behind Brett Favre's Famous, Neverending 'Indecision'

I've been unwavering for some time in my criticism of Brett Favre. There is no denying his talent, pedigree, Hall of Fame credentials, or overall greatness on the football field. He may have left a sour taste in Packer fans' mouths with the way he departed after 17 years, but no one can question the fact Brett can still play.

He proved that by having possibly his best statistical season as he crossed age 40.

His conduct off the field, however, has left a lot to be desired. He orchestrated his departure from Green Bay with some rather nefarious and manipulative behavior, then did even worse to the New York Jets, paving the way for his arrival in Minnesota.

Instead of deciding to play football and talk the Vikings into letting him skip the portion of training camp that takes place in Mankato, he has lied to the world about his intentions the last two summers.

In Monday's Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vikings writer Judd Zulgad threw out a few ideas as to why Brett seems to insist on taking this route, rather than just being upfront about what he wants to do.

Favre's wavering has become part of his legend and marketability. The Packers eventually tired of this dance and moved on with Aaron Rodgers, but the Vikings are willing to wait and bank on the belief that Favre isn't going to pull the plug on his career.

... Yes, Favre seems to have concerns about his surgically repaired left ankle, but this wasn't a major procedure, it was essentially a clean-up job. Last year, Favre went through the same thing as he vacillated after having surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn biceps.

The real question is whether Favre even believes what he's trying to sell to the public -- and his employer. Some will say that he truly is filled with doubt. The cynic will call this all part of his offseason act: an attempt to stay away from camp as long as possible and ride in on his white horse at a more convenient time.

So which is it?

In a lengthy story in Men's Journal on Favre that hit newsstands Friday, the quarterback admits that recapturing the success of 2009 won't be easy.

The Vikings' schedule appears far more difficult, and there are no guarantees the breaks again will go the team's way. The last-second touchdown pass on which Greg Lewis made a remarkable catch against San Francisco and the missed field goal by Baltimore with 2 seconds left come to mind as examples of games that could have gone the other way.

"What are the odds that I have another season like that, even if I play well?" Favre asked.

These are all valid points. People have sometimes mistaken Brett for a bit of a hayseed -- kind of part of his image, in a weird way -- over the years, but he's far from it.

Favre is a shrewd, intelligent man who understands football and understands his place among the legends in the game. He also loves the attention his annual dance with retirement has brought him. He enjoys the cameras buzzing around the high school where he has spent time the last two summers getting his arm into shape. He likes hearing reporters talking about him on television, and he likes it when people probe him for information.

He knows he's playing in 2010, and the Vikings know he's playing in 2010. By playing up the indecision, he's able to justify skipping the team's offseason workouts and the portion of training camp that takes place in Mankato. The Vikings' training camp home is a city about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities that swells when camp comes along, but would burst with throngs of fans and media if they knew Favre was going to be there.

The circus you saw last August when he showed up at Winter Park was bad enough, but the Twin Cities are more than big enough to handle it. Mankato is probably better off without it, in a way.

More than anything, Favre doesn't have to worry about his teammates holding against him the fact that he gets to skip camp. After all, he hasn't made up his mind, and no one is supposed to know any different.

Oh, and he threw for over 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns to just seven picks last year. That came after he skipped training camp. Good luck telling him he shouldn't walk the same path again, even if there's plenty of evidence that it's not the best idea.

Monday, July 19, 2010

News Regarding Local Radio and Me

This is a release from Red Rock Radio, which was kind enough to hire me. I can't wait to pay them back for their faith!

Superior, WI, native Bruce Ciskie has been hired as Sports Director at Duluth’s Red Rock Radio stations beginning August 3, 2010. The current voice of University of Minnesota/Duluth men’s hockey accepted the position on Friday.

Ciskie was chosen out of more than 50 applicants from around the country and will manage and host a daily hour-long noon show on the radio group’s all-sports station, The Fan 1490 AM (KQDS-AM). He will also join the KQDS (94.9 FM) Morning Show with Jason Manning and Frank Befera as the sports personality.

Red Rock Radio Operations Manager Tom Roubik says Ciskie was an ideal candidate for the job. “Bruce has already hosted two sports call-in shows in the Twin Ports and, in our opinion, is one of the brightest hockey play-by-play broadcasters in the country. We are very pleased he accepted the offer.”

Ciskie says he is looking forward to the challenge. “"I am very excited to be making a full-time return to the airwaves after almost two years. Hopefully, we can continue to keep sports fans entertained and informed every day. Bulldog hockey will be a treat this winter, thanks to what should be a very good team and (with) the much-anticipated opening of Amsoil Arena!"

Ciskie is a lifelong Twin Ports resident. He will continue to do play-by-play for UMD men’s hockey in 2010-11. Red Rock Radio announced last week that those broadcasts will be moving from The Fan to 94X (KZIO-FM 94.1 FM in Duluth and 104.3 outside the Twin Ports). The move will significantly increase the listening area of the games.

Ciskie also works as a part-time writer and editor for AOL’s

Red Rock Radio operates eight radio stations in Northern Minnesota including KQDS-FM, KQDS-AM, KZIO, WWAX (92.1 FM in Duluth), KBAJ (105.5 FM Grand Rapids), KFGI (101.5 FM Brainerd), WXXZ (95.3 FM in Grand Marais), and KAOD (106.7 FM in Babbitt).

Thanks to all for the support over the years. Things on this blog and FanHouse are unlikely to change.

College Football 2010: Big East

Yes, we're doing a College Football Preview again. Yes, you know I love Phil Steele's work. Order from his plethora of preview options here. I'm also armed with The Sporting News College Football 2010, and I picked up the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook this year, too. I've also done research through local newspapers and school websites to try to get the most up-to-date information on the teams.

Big East Conference

1. Pittsburgh
2. West Virginia
3. South Florida
4. Connecticut
5. Cincinnati
6. Rutgers
7. Syracuse
8. Louisville

Stories to Watch in the Big East

Moving on from Brian Kelly. Butch Jones is no slouch. He won 27 of 40 games in three years at Central Michigan, leading the Chippewas to two MAC titles. He did great work with record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour. Don't count him out at Cincinnati, even if the odds are against him a bit. The Bearcats are missing six starters off a subpar defense that gave up 194 points over their last five games. Cornerback Dominique Battle leads what should be an improved secondary, but the Bearcats have to improve up front. Zach Collaros will start at quarterback with Tony Pike gone, and running back Isaiah Reed returns. Collaros started a couple games in 2009 when Pike was hurt, so this isn't going to be a new dance for him. He hit 75 percent of his throws while filling in, so it's expected that he will play well. Mardy Gilyard is gone, but senior Armon Binns should be able to step in to the No. 1 receiver role nicely. Jones will have a good team, but defensive losses and a tough schedule will cause problems in his first year.

Moving on from controversy. All the years that Jim Leavitt put in at South Florida, and one locker-room incident blew the whole thing up. Allegations that Leavitt struck a player during halftime of a game last season led to his dismissal as USF coach. The school did well, though, as they plucked Skip Holtz from East Carolina to take Leavitt's place. While Leavitt sues the school and tries to get his contract paid off, Holtz will work with a very strong returning group. Last year's knee injury to longtime starting quarterback Matt Grothe might have been temporarily crippling, but it was also eye-opening, because it gave talented B.J. Daniels a chance to shine as the starter before he was expected to. Grothe is gone now, and Daniels is the unquestioned starter. He has to improve as a passer, and leading receiver Carlton Mitchell's departure won't help there. But what USF really needs is a running back to step up. Daniels ended up being the Bulls' leading rusher last year, and that can't happen again. Moise Plancher and Demetris Murray seem the best candidates to run the ball regularly. Holtz also has to replace six starters on defense, including the top four tacklers and leading sacker Jason Pierre-Paul. Look for a big year out of redshirt freshman end Ryne Giddins.

Pitt continues to rise. It's been pretty steady improvement since Dave Wannstedt took over as the head coach at Pittsburgh. The Panthers have won 19 games the last two years, posted double-digit wins in 2009 for the first time in nearly 20 years, and look to be a real favorite in the Big East this fall. Wannstedt is still looking to find a consistent passing game, but he has a real star in the making in sophomore running back Dion Lewis. The short, stocky Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards as a freshman, chipped in 25 receptions, and scored 18 touchdowns (17 rushing). Not bad for a true freshman. New starting quarterback Tino Sunseri will try to pick up where Bill Stull left off. The departed Stull greatly improved his completion percentage as a senior, and he threw 21 touchdowns. Leading receiver Jon Baldwin, a big dude who is good in traffic, returns. The defense lost a few pieces, but should still be strong thanks to middle linebacker Dan Mason and safety Jarred Holley. The recent suspension of starting end Jabaal Sheard will hurt, but the Panthers are deep along the defensive line. Non-conference dates with Utah (road) and Miami (home) are daunting, but the Panthers could still hit double digits in wins.

Connecticut looks for a breakthrough. UConn battled through the murder of cornerback Jasper Howard last year, rallying late in the year to make a bowl game after a three-game losing streak that came right after the murder. This UConn team should be even better. 16 starters are back, including emerging star running back Jordan Todman and former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer, who got better as last year wore on and will continue to improve as a senior. On defense, weakside linebacker Lawrence Wilson had 140 tackles and five sacks last year, and the All-Big East player is the leader of this unit. If Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz play well at cornerback, the Huskies could be quite formidable on this side of the ball. Their performance in the bowl win over South Carolina last year should be quite encouraging. Top dogs West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati all visit Storrs, and the only daunting non-conference roadie is a date at Michigan to open the season. This could be the year UConn surges in the polls and stays there.

Best of the Rest
Senior running back Noel Devine gets one more shot at a BCS bowl with West Virginia. Devine has been very good, but he needs more out of the Mountaineers' passing attack to give the offense balance. Either that, or he needs Pat White back. WVU's defense could be best in the Big East, and they're a sleeper for the league title. ... Tom Savage was a great find for Rutgers at quarterback. With Joe Martinek and Mohamed Sanu both back, the Scarlet Knights should improve on that side of the ball. The question is whether a defense that lost its top four tacklers, leading sack man, and best defensive back can keep up. ... I expect Syracuse to climb out of the Big East cellar this fall, and it will be much to the credit of new coach Doug Marrone, who won't accept the kind of mediocrity that had settled in under Greg Robinson. Stopgap quarterback Greg Paulus and star wide receiver Mike Williams depart, but sophomore Ryan Nassib looks like a good option at quarterback, where it's not like Paulus was anything special. Delone Carter will easily top the 1,021 yard total from a year ago, as Syracuse runs the ball better. ... Good thing Charlie Strong's background is on defense, because Louisville's new head coach has some serious rebuilding to do there. The Cardinals were a disaster last year, failing to score consistently or stop people. The defense wasn't good and lost its top four tacklers. If he can get them going on that side of the ball, the Cardinals should at least be competitive, but it's hard to see them qualifying for a bowl game.

Preseason Big East Superlatives
Best QB: Zach Collaros, Cincinnati
Best RB: Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh
Best WR: Jon Baldwin, Pittsburgh
Best offense: Cincinnati
Best defense: Pittsburgh
Best coach: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh
Coach in the most trouble: N/A
Best non-conference game: Miami at Pittsburgh, Sept. 23
Worst non-conference game: Indiana State at Cincinnati, Sept. 11

Michael Jordan Speaks, Knows LeBron Will Never Be Him

When LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat, he did more than just piss off his old owner in Cleveland.

He also harmed his ability to ever be what so many young basketball players strive to be someday. Besides winning titles, youngsters want to be what Michael Jordan was: the best ever.

James is a great player, but his move to Miami means he will never be considered better than MJ.

As Bill Simmons wrote in The Book of Basketball, Jordan was pathologically competitive.

In my lifetime, only one superstar was routinely described like Hannibal Lecter. "Michael is a killer. Michael will rip your heart out. If you give Michael an opening, he will kill you. Michael smells blood. Michael is going for the jugular. Nobody goes for the kill like Michael Jordan. They're on life support and Michael is pulling the plug."

Simmons went on to write about how Jordan will never happen in the NBA again.

The NBA is too buddy-buddy now. These stars grow up together, befriend one another, hang out during summers, play Team USA together, text and email each other ... it's a big circle jerk ... The greats from Jordan's era always maintained a respectful distance; even when Magic and Isiah smooched each other, there was a coldness to it.

Of course, Simmons writes this whenever (the book came out last fall), and then we see three old Team USA teammates (LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) fulfill a discussed goal of playing together in the NBA in 2010.

Can you see Jordan doing this with Larry Bird and Magic?

Jordan can't.

"There's no way, in hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry (Bird), called up Magic (Johnson) and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,'" Jordan said during an interview on NBC after playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada (photo right). But, Jordan added, that was a different time and the NBA played a different type of game during his heyday. "Things are different," Jordan said. "I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."

See? He was trying to beat them.

It consumed Jordan, and it's part of what made him so great. Simply put, Michael didn't have time to be friends with Bird, Magic, Kareem, Isiah, Dominique, and whoever else. He was too busy trying to destroy them. That famous competitive drive was what everyone respected about MJ, and it's the same drive he couldn't shut off when he made an ass of himself during his Hall of Fame induction.

Like Jordan said, James had an opportunity to make this move. He was free to do so. But you don't have to read between the lines to see the reality.

Michael Jordan is fully aware that LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan, at least not as long as he's riding Dwyane Wade's coattails.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski Feud Creates More Track Drama

Does NASCAR finally have a real rivalry?

It thought it did a couple years ago, when Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were battling for the points lead. But both fizzled and bowed to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase, and neither has been a serious championship contender in NASCAR's top series since.

While it's "just the Nationwide Series," Edwards may have another foil. This time, it's one of the sport's top young drivers, and it's not Busch.

It's Brad Keselowski.

The two have seen their share of battles on the track, with Edwards ending up in the fence last spring during the Talladega race, wrecked by Keselowski as the two raced for a restrictor-plate win. This spring, the two traded paint in Atlanta, before Edwards -- angry over an earlier incident -- bumped Keselowski and sent him airborne. Edwards was (rightfully) put on probation by NASCAR for the move.

While NASCAR has professed a "Have at it, boys" attitude to its racing this year, they simply can't be a party to one driver putting another in a dangerous position. As safe as these cars are, "on the roof" is a dangerous position on the racetrack.

Saturday night, the two came together at the end of the Nationwide race at Gateway. Instead of trying to describe everything that happened, let's just go to the video.

Edwards won the race, and Keselowski was left to whine about it afterward. Apparently, we're supposed to believe he was just racing Edwards, but Edwards was trying to take him out for no reason.

It's bunk.

While Edwards could have been a bit more apologetic for the aftermath of his bump (surely, he didn't intend for Keselowski to be such a sitting duck for unsuspecting competitors racing for the start/finish line), and he never should have done that backflip, he wasn't totally in the wrong on the racetrack.

Neither was Keselowski.

This was "Have at it, boys" personified. This was what NASCAR wanted when those famous words were uttered during Speedweeks. This is what makes for compelling television, even if the two mend fences and make nice.

Neither driver can claim to be perfectly in the right, nor can they say the other driver was totally wrong.

But in the end, the biggest sin was indeed committed by Edwards, who shouldn't have celebrated so boisterously -- even if it was his home track, so to speak -- after performing a borderline dirty move to win.

Hopefully, we see more fireworks from these two the rest of the way, because NASCAR needs more racing like this.

Macha Finally Showing Emotion

Brewer fans have plenty of reason to be frustrated with this season. After all, it's not gone well, and for every step forward, the team takes two steps back.

Through it all, manager Ken Macha has continued to show virtually no emotion, even though he did manage an ejection during a game at Colorado last month. That was his first ejection in nearly 300 as Brewers manager, something that took predecessor Ned Yost about 20 minutes.

We've also seen Macha refuse to properly deal with underperforming veteran pitchers, and we've seen his complete lack of emotion during games.

Saturday night, Macha came as close to snapping as he's come in his tenure with Milwaukee.

The Brewers were in the midst of a comfortable 6-3 win over the Atlanta Braves Saturday, when first baseman Prince Fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. Apparently, he looked at pitcher Johnny Venters wrong, because the first pitch went over Fielder's head, and the second one hit him right in the middle of the back. Since the home-plate umpire had issued a warning between the pitches, Venters was ejected -- along with Braves manager Bobby Cox, who actually knows how to be thrown out of a ballgame, unlike Macha. Fielder threw his bat down, clearly pissed at what went down, but chose not to charge the mound.

After the game, Macha was livid.

Well, livid by Macha standards.

“I don't know what's going on there,” ... Macha said before saying Major League Baseball should get involved. “(Vice President of rules and on-field operations) Bob Watson ought to take a look at it. Braun hits a home run, they drill (Fielder). He hits a home run, his next at-bat they drill him. That's evidence enough for me for some guys to get suspended for quite a bit. “Now if they're just wild, tell them to get the ball over the plate. We're respecting what's going on. Hit the ball, run around the bases. … Apparently they want to pitch Prince inside but in the middle of the back? That's a little more than inside.”

(By the way, Venters and Cox think we're all morons, because neither would admit to any intent, even though this is far from the first time a Brewer hitter has been beaned by an Atlanta pitcher while the Braves are getting beat.)

Cox and Macha met before Sunday's game, probably because Cox knew Manny Parra was pitching for the Brewers, and that made the game virtually a lost cause. If the Brewers wanted to retaliate, wouldn't this be the perfect time to do it?

Fielder handled the situation with class, as he did in the spring when he took a beaning from San Francisco's Barry Zito, and completely unlike his meltdown in Los Angeles last summer.

Now, it's time for the Braves to fess up. Quit playing dumb, and admit that you have some sort of a problem with Prince Fielder. After all, you never know. He might be your teammate soon.

Video: Fontaine's Two-Goal Day

The Minnesota Wild were kind enough to stream Saturday's prospects scrimmage at the XCel Energy Center.

Here is a highlight package from the game, in which UMD senior Justin Fontaine scored two goals.

Sunday's second scrimmage starts at 11 a.m.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bulldog Fontaine Shines at Wild Camp

During the summer, NHL teams have a chance to host top prospects for developmental camps. This is not just a shot for teams to see what their draft picks can do, but it also gives them an opportunity to bring in top college free agents.

The players are not paid to take part in the camps, so guys with remaining NCAA eligibility don't have to sacrifice that to take part in a camp. It's a no-lose, because they can be seen by NHL teams and scouts, get pointers from coaches, and get a better idea what part of their game needs improvement so they can get a pro contract at some point.

Justin Fontaine has played three years at UMD. In 117 games, he has 40 goals and 106 points, numbers that become even more impressive when you consider that he had just four goals and 12 points as a freshman. In 82 games since, Fontaine has accounted for 36 goals and 94 points, a very impressive pace that he should be able to add to as a senior for UMD.

Fontaine was in the Twin Cities this week, taking part in a prospect camp for the Minnesota Wild. He is one of many current and future Bulldogs who are skating or have skated in NHL camps this summer.

Saturday, Fontaine scored twice in the first of two scrimmages the prospects are playing. The second will be Sunday at 11 a.m. in St. Paul, and is open to the public. Fontaine is joined at this camp by Bemidji State star Matt Read, among other college hopefuls.

"It's been a great experience so far," Fontaine said. "They treat you well. You just have to try and ask a lot of questions to the guys that have been to these."

There is little doubt Fontaine will receive an opportunity at a professional contract following his senior season. He's scored more than 40 points each of the last two seasons and will likely be a first team forward selection in most preseason WCHA polls.

"I want to get faster and just improve in all areas of the ice," Fontaine said. "I want to work on everything and hopefully it will show when I get back to Duluth."

Yes, this is supposed to get you at least a little excited for Bulldog hockey, even though it is still many days away. Fontaine is going to be part of one of the nation's more lethal offensive attacks, joined by the Connollies, Travis Oleksuk, a ready-to-make-The-Leap Mike Seidel, senior Kyle Schmidt, and grinder David Grun, among others.

WIAA Passes Bad Idea This Time

A couple weeks ago, we noted that the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association was on the verge of putting a bad idea in as a new statewide rule.

The state's governing body for high school sports tried to push a bad idea on its member schools last year, but they were unsuccessful.

This time, the WIAA got its wish. It's board approved a proposed change to the football calendar, one that will start the regular season one week earlier than usual. Instead of starting the last Friday in August, teams will play Week 1 in the middle of the month.

It means teams in Wisconsin will have three games played before school even starts, and it has a lot of other bad parts to it.
  • Coaches who are already not making nearly enough money for the work they put in will have to start their practices five days earlier than usual, meaning that much more work during what should be summer vacation. This is along with recent changes that allowed for organized team workouts for a period during the summer months.
  • Teams will have to play in what is typically very warm weather -- at least by Wisconsin standards. Many times, games played early in the season are stopped for mandatory water breaks. Now, this will happen more often, slowing the pace of games and putting more players at risk for heat-related problems, whether it be in practices or games.
The basis for the move is somewhat understandable, as the schedule had teams playing three games in ten days should they advance to the second round of the Wisconsin playoffs. Instead of pushing the season back a week, and sending championship football teams more into an overlap with winter sports practice schedules, the board chose to possibly inconvenience football coaches a bit by having them start their season earlier.

Of course, as we noted when we first brought you this story, the state's coaches seemed split over whether the "three games in ten days" issue was really a problem to begin with.

Now, we'll see how they like starting earlier, and if it's worth a little less strain on the athletes in the late fall to make this switch with the calendar.

College Football 2010: ACC

Yes, we're doing a College Football Preview again. Yes, you know I love Phil Steele's work. Order from his plethora of preview options here. I'm also armed with The Sporting News College Football 2010, and I picked up the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook this year, too. I've also done research through local newspapers and school websites to try to get the most up-to-date information on the teams.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Atlantic Division
1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Boston College
4. North Carolina State
5. Maryland
6. Wake Forest

Coastal Division
1. Miami
2. Virginia Tech
3. Georgia Tech
4. North Carolina
5. Duke
6. Virginia

Stories to Watch in the ACC

The transition is complete. Well, sort of. Bobby Bowden is out -- whether he likes it or not -- at Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher has taken command. You knew this was coming, as Fisher had a sizable chunk of money due him if he wasn't head coach by 2011. The good thing about this is that there has been plenty of time for Fisher to get to know his players and involve himself in the recruiting. We don't have to overthink this. The Seminoles should be very good. The offense Fisher coached last year averaged 30 points for a second straight year, and he gets every key player back outside of leading receiver Rod Owens, who only scored three touchdowns. Christian Ponder is a legitimate Heisman contender, one who I expect will build off his 2009 season. If he can stay healthy (missed four games last year), he will easily throw over 20 touchdowns and may top 70 percent completions. They brought in a Stoops (Mark) to replace Mickey Andrews as defensive coordinator, so I'm not worried too much about that side of the ball. They allowed 30 points per game for the first time in forever last year, and that won't happen again.

The U is back. Some people are really bullish on these Hurricanes. I have a few concerns, mainly revolving around their awful schedule. Miami plays three hideously tough road games (Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Clemson) in their first four games, and they also have to deal with Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and South Florida all visiting Miami. Throw in a road date with Georgia Tech in November, and you have one of the toughest schedules anywhere. Of course, there's the football team itself, which will be the best Miami has fielded since Larry Coker coached Butch Davis' recruits to a national title. They got whipped around a bit by Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, but they hope the addition of sophomore Marcus Forston to the defensive tackle rotation will give that unit a bit of punch they lacked a year ago. Meanwhile, Jacory Harris will grow more as a quarterback, you can count on a huge year from senior receiver Leonard Hankerson, and the Hurricanes will get better at blocking in front of Harris. If they survive the early gauntlet, Miami can win the ACC. They're that good.

Is North Carolina ready for prime time? Davis hopes so. The former Miami and NFL coach has engineered a turnaround with the Tar Heels, leading UNC to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and two bowl bids. Now, it's time for the next step. The Heels return 19 starters from last year, including every key skill position player, and their entire defensive back seven. There are a few things that stand out with this team, besides the large number of returnees. Former Minnesota defensive coordinator Everett Withers did a superb job with the Heels defense last year. UNC was stout against the run, with the high point being a great effort in a late-season blowout win at Boston College. The Heels allowed just 270 yards (96 on the ground) per game, and they gave up only 17 points per game. The other key is at wide receiver, where they recovered a bit from the loss of 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks with improvement from Greg Little and Erik Highsmith. Both should have big years with quarterback Tyler Yates, who will need to fend off a camp challenge from Bryn Renner, a redshirt freshman.

How good is Russell Wilson going to be? After a great season for North Carolina State -- albeit in a 5-7 effort -- last year, Wilson had a super run with the Wolfpack baseball team. He was good enough to get selected in the first round of the baseball draft by the Colorado Rockies. He has signed a deal and will play baseball until fall camp, at which point he plans to rejoin the football team. So how good will he be? The junior threw for over 3,000 yards last year, with 31 touchdowns and only 11 picks. It certainly wasn't his fault that the 'Pack struggled to a losing record for a fourth straight year. He's one of the best quarterbacks -- if not the best -- in the ACC, but how much will his baseball aspirations hurt him? Wilson missed spring practice, and while his teammates are working out in preparation for fall camp, he's playing minor-league baseball. As long as he isn't rusty, guys like Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams, and Darrell Davis will make sure Wilson has another superb season. The question is: Will NC State play enough defense to get Wilson to a bowl game before he pursues his baseball career?

Best of the Rest
Wilson isn't the only two-sport star prepared to lead his team to glory. Clemson sophomore Kyle Parker had a huge spring for the Tigers, who made the College World Series. Now, he's back with the football team in hopes of improving on their 9-5 record last year. Parker needs to be more accurate (55.6 percent completions as a freshman). ... There are some pieces in place for Boston College, who went 8-5 under Frank Spaziani after a tumultuous offseason. Now, with quarterback Dave Shinskie back, along with top running back Montel Harris, the Eagles will be better offensively. The defense has some holes, but they should be buoyed by the presence of senior linebacker Mark Herzlich, who missed last season while recovering from cancer. ... Veteran coach Ralph Friedgen could be on his last legs at Maryland, but he's going down swinging. The defense will improve, especially against the pass, but if quarterback Jamarr Robinson doesn't get the job done, none of that will matter. ... After seemingly lasting in college for a decade, quarterback Riley Skinner has departed from Wake Forest after leading the Demon Deacons to three bowl games and the 2006 ACC title. Expect Wake to revert to more of an option look with new starter Skylar Jones, though the Demon Deacons still have talented receivers available in Marshall Williams and Devon Brown. ... It's been almost a quarter century for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. If the Hokies win 13 games, they'll get him to 200 career wins. That's not likely, but you never know with the Hokies. Tech does have to rebuild a defense that lost seven starters, but they do get the services of linebacker Barquell Rivers. On offense, Tyrod Taylor gets one more shot at quarterback. The senior has leading rusher Ryan Williams back, and he was good enough to top 1,650 yards and score 21 times last year. ... Defending ACC champ Georgia Tech lost leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer and leading receiver Demaryius Thomas, but will forge ahead with the option offense of Paul Johnson. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt topped 1,000 yards rushing and accounted for 28 touchdowns (18 rushing). Anthony Allen should be the leading rusher in Johnson's attack. The defense will improve, but it has a lot to make up for thanks to heavy losses on offense. ... This could be the year David Cutcliffe leads Duke to its first bowl in 13 years. They lost star quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to graduation, but return some solid pieces on defense, top receivers Donovan Varner and Connor Vernon, and four starters on the offensive line. Now, Cutcliffe just has to find a way to get the Blue Devils better at running the ball, because without that, they won't go anywhere with their tough schedule (Alabama, Miami, Boston College, North Carolina at home; Virginia Tech, Navy, Georgia Tech on the road). ... Former Richmond coach Mike London takes over at Virginia, where the Cavaliers fell to 3-9 last year after being in the Gator Bowl only two years prior. A 3-3 start fell apart amid a six-game losing streak that cost Al Groh his gig. London has to rebuild, thanks to heavy skill position losses, and the defense is likely to struggle again. Unless London can work some magic, it's going to be a long 2010 in Charlottesville.

Preseason ACC Superlatives
Best QB: Christian Ponder, Florida State
Best RB: Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
Best WR: Owen Spencer, North Carolina State
Best offense: Florida State
Best defense: North Carolina
Best coach: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Coach in the most trouble: Ralph Friedgen, Maryland
Best non-conference game: Miami at Ohio State/Florida State at Oklahoma (tie), Sept. 11
Worst non-conference game: Presbyterian at Clemson, Sept. 11

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Brett Favre Tells More Lies, Bus-Chucks Sidney Rice

Our boy, Brett Favre, is back at it.

This time, he brought back his old bus-chucking ways to go along with throwing some lies out about his playing status.

As you already know, we're all supposed to believe Brett is undecided about playing a second season for the Minnesota Vikings. Never mind that he hasn't even tried to retire yet this offseason, the 40-year-old went out of his way to have ankle surgery just in time to miss all of training camp again.

And we all know he didn't have ankle surgery so he could turn around and spend the fall hunting, riding his tractor, and occasionally golfing.

As training camp approaches, Favre again sees fit to lie to everyone. Instead of just admitting that he got the "OK" from the Vikings to skip training camp in Mankato, he's playing up his indecision.

"I still have a little bit of time," Favre said during a post-ESPYs interview.

"I'm still, believe it or not, not completely healthy, and I may never be."

Favre had ankle surgery earlier this offseason, a procedure that he called "relatively minor" but one he also reportedly needed in order to suit up for Minnesota this season.

Dr. James Andrews, who performed Favre's surgery, said in mid-June that Favre had "a few more weeks of rehabbing" to complete before he could take the field again.

"I'd hope it (the ankle) would be a little better at this point," Favre told ESPN. "I can walk on it, but you don't walk in football."

I've yet to understand the problem. Brett is a grown man who can do whatever he wants, especially if the Vikings are going to let him. The Vikings have made no public pronouncements to the contrary, so why would anyone think they're going to force him to show up at training camp if he really wants to play?

Instead, what's likely true is that the team has signed off on Favre skipping camp, but for some unknown reason, they insist on allowing Brett to play his divatastic "I can't make up my mind" game. Maybe it's part of the deal ... let Favre try to own the media for the offseason, and then welcome him back with open arms and alleged schisms.

He looks like a fool, and he doesn't even have his pants on the ground.

If you believe Brett is going to retire, you're crazy. He didn't have the surgery to better his everyday life. He did it so he could play football again. You shouldn't believe he could possibly retire until you're watching Week 1 games and he's not in any of them.

Even better: Favre did an interview with Men's Journal. In it, he sends wide receiver Sidney Rice under a moving bus over the now-famous interception Favre threw against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

“The previous week against the Cowboys, we did the same exact play to Rice,” Favre told (writer Stephen) Rodrick. "We were up about 25 at the time, so it was different. He came back to me on a broken play, and we got 20 yards. This time, when I let it go, I’m thinking he’s going to come back to me. As he drifted farther and farther away, I could see the corner come in from the other side, and I’m thinking, Oh, [shoot].”

“As a player you’ve got to pull the trigger,” Favre added. “You can’t say, Well, is he going to do what I think he’s going to do? He wasn’t wrong, and in some ways, I wasn’t either.”

Favre was criticized for taking a gamble at such a crucial time. Rodrick wrote: "Some say it’s the Football Gods settling the score for his yearly tease."

Responded Favre to the criticism: "They were the same people who said I’d suck all season. I don’t worry about that. A lot of plays go into a game; that was just one of them.”

It's one thing to blame your receiver when you call an audible and he runs the wrong route. Brett did that occasionally in Green Bay and with the Jets. Rarely did he pull off such an irrational explanation for such a stupid interception.

Favre thinks Rice should be a mind-reader 24/7. He blames Rice for not coming back to the ball on a play where Favre never should have been throwing in the first place. The Vikings were literally about five yards out of game-winning field goal range. I know Favre was busted up pretty good in that game, but it's not possible to argue he couldn't have run for 15 feet, fallen down awkwardly, and called a timeout to set up Ryan Longwell for a shot at the Super Bowl.

Rice wasn't wrong at all on that play, Brett. That was you. Own it and stop teaching these young guys how to be bad teammates in the media.

Especially if you're going to walk in that room and start singing the wrong lyrics to "Pants On The Ground" again.