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Monday, November 23, 2009

More Than a Game

When I was five years old, my dad came home from work with a gift. It was white with red lettering, and he nailed it on my door. I asked him what it was; he replied that it was a banner, and that the “STANFORD” printed on it represented a local university.

I didn’t know much about the system, so he continued to explain to me that after eighth grade, you go to high school, and then college. In this case, my father had come from Stanford Hospital from a seminar and thought it would be a good idea to get me to start thinking about these things.

As luck would have it, the Stanford football team was playing their archrival on the road later that month. My dad bought two tickets and we drove across the Bay Bridge to watch the game.

When we got there, we had arrived two hours early. My dad wanted me to see what a real college looked like so we walked around the city. I originally thought the circus was in town; street vendors sold a variety of random objects and the scents of unfamiliar food permeated my senses, with people of all shapes and colors sporting crazy looking hair and tattoos galore. The campus itself was amazing, with the different architectural styles of the buildings and hilly paths.

Something about this Berkeley place was so unique, but I couldn’t quite quantify why I was having such a good time in the enemy’s den.

And then there was the game.

A sea of blue and gold overwhelmed the sprinkling of red and white around the stadium. When I asked my father why the "bad guys" had so many more fans, he just shrugged his shoulders.

At halftime, we stood in line to buy hot dogs when we heard some inappropriate heckling behind us. I turned around to find college-age kids in red yelling profanities at an elderly couple wearing blue sweaters.

Food in hand, we returned to our seats. As the game wore on and the cheers grew louder, I started joining in. GOOOOOO!!! BEEEAAARRSSSS!!!!! GOOOOO!!!! BEEAAAARRRRSSSS!!!!

Fittingly enough, the game ended in a tie, and it was decision time. Upon arriving home, I told my dad that I had made up my mind and that I liked the other school. I told him I wanted to go to Cal instead.

My father raised an eyebrow, grinned, and said, “Fine. But we’re going to make a deal. I’m going to leave this banner up there until the day you get in.”

Every day for thirteen years, I stared at that hideous felt triangle just waiting for the day I could rip it off my door.

And there were definitely some days when I would go home from school thinking that it would never happen.

When I finally received my acceptance letter, my dad let me do the honors and wondered if I was going to bring it to the annual Big Game Bonfire the night before the game. I said I’d rather celebrate with him that night and throw it in our fireplace. He gave me the matches.

I returned to my old school in Watts yesterday after teaching fourth grade there for four years, and Ana, one of my former students, approached me after school. After catching up, she asked me what happened to the Cal banner I once nailed on the door to Room 7. I told her I had left it in the closet when I cleaned everything out, but that my replacement had probably thrown everything away. She walked to the door and opened it.

Amidst all the books and tapes, it was still there.

She asked me if she could have it for her room, and all I could do was smile.

Today marks my 22nd Big Game, and regardless of the outcome, it never gets old.

Win or lose, LET’S GO BEARS!!!

Shane Vereen ran for a career-high 193 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries, and Mike Mohamed intercepted a pass at the 3-yard line with under two minutes left to give Cal the coveted Axe for the seventh time in eight years, 34-28!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cotto's Road to Redemption

Today, in the second of our three-part series, we look at the defending champion and his story leading up to now.

Miguel Cotto genuflected on the canvas. It was not a pose of respect or homage, but rather of exhaustion and disbelief.

Wiping down his cheek with gloves only a shade of red lighter than the blood dripping his face, the outgoing WBA welterweight champion was left to reflect on the direction of his career.

Never in his previous 32 fights had he eaten punishment congruent to the kind doled out by Mexican challenger Antonio Margarito on July 26, 2008. Then again, before that night he had never tasted defeat, either.

Up to that point, Cotto’s career was on cruise control. Holding masterful wins over former champions Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, and Carlos Quintana, along with the retirement of then-welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather, it seemed that the time was right to assume the throne of the 147-pound division and make a run toward the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.

Margarito laid those hopes to rest.

While Cotto would eke out a small lead early on by using his boxing skills and outjabbing his opponent, it was short-lived. His punches had minimal effect in deterring Margarito from coming forward. On the other hand, the Mexican’s volleys landed on his face with all of the courtesy of a meteor shower.

The vicious onslaught culminated in an eleventh round where Cotto was forced to take a knee twice, resulting in his uncle Evangelista throwing in the towel to induce a stoppage. Margarito had derailed the Cotto Express. Some pundits even wondered if this loss marked the end of his run as an elite fighter.

This was not how the story was supposed to end.

After representing his homeland in a moderately successful Sydney Olympics in 2000, the pride of Caguas, Puerto Rico, stormed out the gate by winning his first thirteen fights and being awarded ESPN’s Prospect of the Year in 2002. A Top Rank signee, head promoter and CEO Bob Arum and matchmaker Bruce Trampler brought him along seamlessly with gradual degrees of difficulty as he rose up the junior welterweight division, utilizing the same formula that made Oscar De La Hoya a household name.

Two years later, he finally made it to a 140-pound title eliminator, efficiently dominating tough gatekeeper Lovemore N’Dou in a unanimous decision and showing HBO the kid was for real. It also just so happened that the fight occurred as the co-feature to Manny Pacquiao’s first defense of his 126-pound title against then-Top Rank house fighter Juan Manuel Marquez.

However, after winning the WBO junior welterweight title in a six-round obliteration of his former amateur conqueror, Kelson Pinto, the tight defense for which Cotto garnered acclaim earlier in his career suddenly became a point of contention. In his subsequent wins against rest of the top ten in the division, it raised the eyebrows of many when he was tagged with frequency, giving up several rounds to inferior fighters like DeMarcus Corley, Ricardo Torres, and Paulie Malignaggi.

At the same time, the champion in the same organization in the division directly above his was beginning to catch the attention of the boxing world.

Antonio Margarito was brutally knocking out contenders for his 147-pound WBO belt and began to attract the Mexican fans because of his come-forward style. A stablemate of Cotto’s at Top Rank, he began to deflect some of Arum’s interest away from the Puerto Rican star, who unlike Margarito, shied away from the flashbulbs and media.

Nonetheless, in 2005, he—and not Margarito—was still the heir apparent to becoming the face of the Top Rank empire. With prized superstars De La Hoya and Mayweather having left Arum’s stable to pursue self-promotional interests, it was only natural that the Puerto Rican take the torch and become the promotional juggernaut's next Pay-Per-View sensation.

However, citing his inability to make weight, he abdicated his title and moved up to Margarito’s division of 147 pounds. In his first fight at welterweight, he overwhelmed his countryman Quintana in five rounds and claimed the WBA welterweight championship, his second belt in as many classes.

After convincing and impressive defenses against Judah and Mosley dispelled any thoughts that the extra weight would be too much for him to carry, Arum had invigorated talks of bringing Mayweather out of retirement and finally launching Miguel to superstardom.

When negotiations fell through, the obvious option was a fight with Margarito, who was coming off an upset loss to Paul Williams and looked vulnerable.

In a move that he would soon regret, the Puerto Rican star signed the contract. Cotto would eventually succumb to this war of attrition, his reputation in shambles and his boxing soul now in the possession of his rival stablemate.

When it rains, it pours. In attempting to regroup after the loss, Team Cotto fell apart like a house of cards. Miguel and his uncle argued over the location of their next training locale; the dispute turned violent as Evangelista hurled a brick at his nephew, wrecking the former champion’s Jaguar and marking the end of a tumultuous but successful relationship.

To add insult to injury, Pacquiao, who had once ignited a rivalry with Top Rank fighters like Marquez and Erik Morales, not only signed with Arum in 2006, but effectively usurped Cotto’s place at the top of the food chain at Top Rank by sharing the marquee in two of the top fourteen boxing gate receipts in the history of Las Vegas.

However, it only took a little bit of chemistry to change Cotto’s fortunes.

In Margarito’s next bout, reports surfaced that he was caught with traces of plaster in his hand wraps. After being ordered to re-wrap his hands, the seemingly invincible Mexican was systematically destroyed by Mosley, a legend that Cotto had already defeated with ease.

In the wake of Margarito’s indefinite suspension immediately following the fight, the events brought a whole new perspective toward assessing Miguel Cotto’s legacy. Although it can never be proven that Margarito fought Cotto with doctored gloves, one could make the argument that he was never defeated in the ring within the rules.

While the consolation of Margarito’s demise did not restore Cotto’s status as champion, he made changes necessary to make his way back to the top. For one, he replaced his uncle as trainer with untested Joe Santiago, which drew instant criticism.

Regardless, the partnership has paid dividends, with victories over Michael Jennings and Joshua Clottey highlighting a renaissance and his second reign as welterweight titlist, paving the road for an epic showdown with Pacquiao.

And the stakes are much higher than the WBO version of the welterweight belt he aims to defend.

A victory this Saturday will extend him an invitation to enter an exclusive pantheon reserved for Boricua boxing immortals including Wilfredo Gomez, Carlos Ortiz, and Felix Trinidad.

Maybe more importantly, for Miguel Angel Cotto to have his arm raised in triumph tomorrow would be to earn what has been denied him at long last: a place at the head of the table at Top Rank as well as atop the boxing world.

TOMORROW MORNING: A preview of the fight complete with analysis and a prediction.

Miguel Cotto defends his WBO world welterweight championship against Manny Pacquiao on Saturday, November 14, live on Pay-Per-View (coverage starts 9ET/6PT).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pacquiao Rises Again

In the first of a three-part series leading up to Manny Pacquiao's showdown with Miguel Cotto this Saturday, we revisit a seminal moment in the Pac-Man's career.

24 seconds into Manny Pacquiao’s first superfight in 2003, his ascent to boxing’s peak was almost over before it started.

After landing a lead left cross on Marco Antonio Barrera’s jaw, the two fighters’ legs got tangled, causing Pacquiao to slip and fall on the blue canvas.

Incredibly, referee Laurence Cole started flashing fingers at Pacquiao and counting to eight. The third man in the ring had, in fact, incorrectly scored the mix-up as a knockdown for Barrera.

By rule, Pacquiao instantly trailed 10-8 in a fight where the differences between him and his Mexican opponent began to present themselves.

The predominantly Mexican fan base in San Antonio almost instinctually jumped out of the 10,127 seats they occupied, filling the cavernous Alamo Dome with raucous screams and horns cajoling Barrera to finish him off. Pacquiao, in contrast, heard no reply from his own fans because they resided an ocean away in the Philippines. Even worse, the defending featherweight champion of the world had fought nine previous times at the 126-pound limit; Pacquiao once.

And if there were any question of the house fighter’s identity, Oscar De La Hoya watched ringside, his Golden Boy Promotions outfit both the lead promoter of the fight and Barrera’s handler. It was clear that almost every card in the deck was stacked against the Filipino underdog, and the bell to signal the end of the first round hadn’t even been rung.

There would be nothing to be ashamed of in the event of a loss. Long after the days of legendary flyweight champ Pancho Villa, a long line of great Filipino fighters after World War II like Flash Elorde and Luisito Espinosa had made it to the cusp of boxing notoriety in America only to fall short when it mattered most. Manny had already made his countrymen proud just by getting his name and likeness printed on a poster alongside the great Barrera. He was not only up against the man in front of him, the officiating, and the hostile crowd, but the ghosts of failures past. Most fighters in his shoes would have called it a night.

But Manny Pacquiao was no stranger to overcoming disadvantages.

Growing up in a single-parent household in the ubiquitous poverty of a third-world country, as a teenager Pacquiao would work a variety of jobs to support his family, from street peddler to construction worker. When his talent was discovered by boxing scouts, he and best friend Buboy Fernandez, still too young to either drink or vote, moved from General Santos City to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

In his first ever bout at sixteen, Manny was so undersized that he hovered nine pounds below the contracted junior flyweight limit of 108 pounds. In fear that he would be barred from fighting (and earning enough money for him and Buboy to eat that week), he stuffed paperweights into his trunks so he could make the weight. He eventually pulled out the decision victory with a determination borne out by an uncanny ability to perform in the worst of conditions. This unusual trait would be tested early and often in the Pac-Man's career.

In 1999, with only 24 bouts under his belt, Pacquiao had not yet celebrated his 20th birthday when he was offered a chance to fight Chatchai Sasakul, the flyweight champion of the world—in Thailand. With his lack of experience, the concession of fighting on the beltholder’s home turf, and falling behind on all three scorecards, the Pac-Man somehow knocked him out in the eighth round to cement his status a national hero. (To put that achievement in perspective today, it occurred 35 pounds ago from where he will fight this Saturday.)

In 2000, in search of a new trainer to guide him to a second title at super bantamweight (122 pounds), he made the trip across the Pacific. Unfortunately, his two championship belts had all the value of Confederate dollars in American boxing circles; he had only fought overseas, making him a relative unknown in the States. Furthermore, the stereotypes then attributed to Asian fighters lacking the heart and skills to succeed against elite competition were so strong that every top trainer turned Pacquiao away from West Palm Beach to Seattle.

Manny and Buboy were so discouraged that they had decided to buy plane tickets for a return trip to Manila—until they received a tip about a gym in Hollywood and a trainer named Freddie Roach. Behind the Wild Card Gym doors, Pacquiao was lucky enough to convince the trainer with the professor-like spectacles to give him a chance.

Roach would never regret it.

One year later, after countless months honing his skills and fighting for relative peanuts in order to rise up the 122-pound rankings, the IBF super bantamweight champion, Lehlo Ledwaba, needed an opponent on short notice because his original challenger was unable to fight. Pacquiao was given the title shot, in all likelihood because of the aforementioned stereotypes about Asian fighters folding under pressure. And as always, the parameters of the fight would not come easy for Manny—being a late substitute, he would only have two weeks to train for the fight and fly to Las Vegas.

Another obstacle, another victory. Pacquiao would crush Ledwaba in six rounds to win his second world title.

The deep-pocketed bigwigs at HBO became intrigued by the young knockout artist with the fan-friendly style, and after a few successful defenses of his belt, he finally landed his shot at the big time in 2003—a third move up in weight to fight the best 126-pounder in the world and universally recognized pound-for-pound No. 3 fighter on the planet, Marco Antonio Barrera. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas hastily made “The Babyfaced Assassin” a 4-1 favorite over the Pac-Man.

Nothing was ever handed to Manny Pacquiao, and despite the scales tipped against him once more, the adversity only strengthened his resolve. It triggered him to walk down a road he had traveled numerous times before, each time the destination remaining the same.


Cole administered the controversial standing-8 count, and the crowd noise in the Alamo Dome was deafening. Pacquiao kept his composure and finished the round.

As the challenger walked toward his cornerman, Roach would divulge to the press later that he told his ward, “We have to make him fight every minute of every round now.”

Like a good pupil, Pacquiao heeded his teacher’s advice.

Two rounds later, a role reversal occurred. This time it was Barrera dazed on the canvas, the recipient of a real knockdown via another Pacquiao left cross—a precursor to the prolonged beating of which the future Hall of Famer would be at the losing end. The thousands in San Antonio and millions watching around the world were stunned at what they were on hand to witness. As every punch landed on Barrera's head and torso with increasing accuracy and impact, the spectators soon turned the Alamo Dome into a place with all the personality of a morgue.

When Cole mercifully stopped the champion in the 11th frame and raised the underdog’s arm in triumph for his third world title in as many weight classes, it signified the greatest accomplishment of Pacquiao’s career to most observers. HBO commentator Jim Lampley likened the coming-out party to the emergence of Greta Garbo. What had gone overlooked was that he had replicated the same feat under similar circumstances several instances in the past, except this time it occurred on HBO against a world-renowned opponent.

A superstar was born, with the remnants of previous stereotypes about Asian fighters sprinkled like shattered glass all over the atmosphere of the boxing world.

Six years later, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao stands today as the best fighter on Earth, owner of six world titles now after repeating the process at 130, 135, and 140 pounds. In a twist that would rival The Most Interesting Man in the World, he has singlehandedly caused military ceasefires and holds a spot on the Time Influential 100. With enough money to fill an Olympic swimming pool and his place in boxing history secure, most fighters would rest on their laurels and call it a day. Pacquiao?

This Saturday, he has chosen instead to pursue an unprecedented seventh belt against a defending champion with all of the advantages of being younger, taller, and in all likelihood, heavier on the scales.

Just Manny being Manny.

TOMORROW: Miguel Cotto's Road to Redemption

Manny Pacquiao fights for his seventh world title in as many weight classes when he takes on WBO world welterweight champion Miguel Cotto on Saturday, November 14, live on Pay-Per-View (coverage starts 9ET/6PT).

Unfortunately, Bowl System Here to Stay

It took one interview on Monday Night Football to show me that President Obama is an objective man. Why? Well, when he was asked about college football, he replied that the only real way to determine a champion would be to have an eight-team playoff.

He’s absolutely right. To be the best you have to BEAT the best. Neither a computer nor a coach nor a journalist can truly decide for me that Texas is better than TCU, or that Boise State would get crushed by Florida based on statistics and perceptions alone. If it were that easy to declare winners ahead of time, then Mike Tyson would’ve knocked Buster Douglas out in the first round, Al Gore would be finishing out his second term, and Enron stock would be going for $400 per share.

I have always wondered why the metropolitan areas that host the four Bowl Championship Series games (Miami, Phoenix, New Orleans, L.A.) couldn't just host a month-long, eight-team playoff where the first two cities could each handle two quarterfinal games, the third city could host both semifinals, and the final city could have a two-week buildup for the national title game like the Super Bowl.

The hype would be bigger than March Madness! Then, like they currently do with the BCS National Championship, rotate the sites the following year so that each one hosts the title game once every four years. (Did I mention they do this already?)

Or, in order to appease the bowl committees, let the bowl season run its course, and then have one final week of voting to decide which two teams deserve to play in the BCS National Title game. If you had an extra week to spare, you could even have the top four teams in the final poll comprise a college football version of the Final Four. That way, the bowl traditions remain intact, and we can crown something close to a real champion through this plus-one or plus-two playoff system.

Of course, there are holes in this argument. In a plus-one, you would be taking away two BCS spots out of the ten currently in place, which wouldn't help at-large candidates like Boise State finish #2 in the polls if they crushed a lesser team in the Poinsettia Bowl rather than an SEC powerhouse in the Sugar Bowl. Then again, I've been a proponent of having the mid-major champs play each other in order to boost their strength of schedule. For example, if Boise State and TCU had a winner-take-all game at the end of the regular season, it would give the winner a better shot to vie for that #2 BCS ranking through the computer poll. The "Bracket Buster" series in the college basketball regular season is already designed to help mid-major schools' RPI, so why not apply the same formula on the gridiron? But I digress.

Sounds logical to crown a true champion, but after thinking about it, one would have a better chance training water to stop being wet than change the current system. I could be wrong, but I really believe that you will never see a college football playoff for the same reason why nobody leaves a hot craps table: everyone’s getting a piece of the action, and no one wants to risk letting theirs go. Who is “everyone?” Let me elaborate:

1. The Cities.
Think the Hawai'i fans checked off Bourbon Street on their to-do lists?

I will bet the house that the local economies of Shreveport, Mobile, and Boise do not enjoy the same amount of tourists at any point during the year compared with the last week of December…and they’re not traveling to those places to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s. For example, if Cal were to end up in El Paso this year for the Sun Bowl (God, please no), expect to see an unusual amount of roundtrip plane tickets purchased between OAK and ELP (I had to look that one up) right around December 31.

Now think of what tourism numbers mean to the BCS metropolitan areas. Two years ago, when Hawai'i was invited to the Sugar Bowl, tourists from all over the Aloha State swarmed the French Quarter all week long, and they pumped plenty of dollars into the post-Katrina New Orleans economy because they needed somewhere to sleep, eat, and do what tourists do for seven days.

But if you had an eight-team playoff system, even if all three rounds were held in the four BCS cities, the Devil's Advocate, as wrong as he is, vehemently argues that tourism would definitely decrease in these areas. First of all, fans would not be extending their stays in a city if the venue switched for the next round of the playoffs. Don't forget about having to invest time and money in order to travel to three different cross-country destinations.

Can you imagine the Cincinnati fan who would be faced with the prospect of buying plane tickets and hotel rooms for his family of five ahead of time in Miami, New Orleans, and Phoenix over four weeks, which he does to save money, only for his Bearcats to get shellacked 56-0 in round one?

That goes the same for the supporters of teams who are one-and-done in very expensive places like Southern California. One can only speculate that fans still bitter over last night’s loss would rather not ride the Tea Cups, but instead look online for the next flight out of Dodge and put their tickets to the remaining rounds on Craigslist.

2. The Bowl Committees.

Somehow this dapper-looking fellow gets to decide if your school gets to go to a $17 million bowl.

If you’ve been to a college football game, and one of the teams is having a good year, then you’ve probably seen random gentlemen (or ladies) rocking colored blazers with funky patches on them. Don’t be alarmed; they aren't members of a cult, but rather, representatives of a bowl committee. Each bowl has its own committee members who decide which schools they will invite if there aren’t already contractual obligations in place with a certain conference, e.g. the Big 12’s second-place team goes to the Cotton Bowl.

Besides the team’s win-loss record, they take into account the size of the fan base, geographic location, and estimates on how well the school’s fans will travel (and therefore, buy tickets). They are also in charge of finding corporate sponsors, renting out the game venue, and distributing the payouts to the two schools.

As you can see, bowl committees, with their lack of fashion sense and self-inflated aura of importance, have a lot of power over their respective city governments, as well as over the coaches whose jobs might hang in the balance based on their teams being selected for bowl berths.

With that noted, the effects of the playoff system would cheapen the value of all of the non-championship bowls. I'm sure the good people in charge of coordinating the Rose Bowl, once proclaimed by Keith Jackson as "The Granddaddy of Them All," wouldn't appreciate their time-honored 106-year-old extravaganza being reduced to no more than a first-round game to decide 6th runner-up in the country.

3. The Corporate Sponsors.
I don't think that logo has enough sponsors.

The Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl. The San Diego Co. Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. The Papajohn’ Bowl. The Kohler Wellworth Toilet Bowl. A shot of Jameson says that you can’t read these names with a straight face. (If you didn’t notice, the last bowl is not in the 2009 lineup--but give it time.)

The fact of the matter is that for 3-4 hours for one night a year, if your school is in one of these games, your ears will be overwhelmed by the sweet sounds of product placement—highly concentrated marketing at that. I went to the Insight Bowl a few years back, and I still don't know what Insight does or sells—but thanks to the bowl, I know the company exists.

God forbid a playoff system that would take away that beloved aspect of the bowls. (Then again, I could see the Domino’s Pizza Quarterfinals or the Hoover Vacuum Semifinals.) Because when all is said and done, nothing proves to the nation that you are a true champion quite like hoisting that Meineke Car Care Bowl trophy over your head. Woot

4. The Administrators of BCS Conference Schools.
Nebraska AD Bill Byrne didn't complain when his school went to the national title game in 2001 without even having won its own conference.

If you took a vote, I bet that the majority of athletic directors in BCS Conferences (Pac-10, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big East) would be in favor of keeping the farce that is the bowl system. In what other sport could you pull the wool over alumni boosters’ eyes by convincing them that a 6-6 season is a triumph?

Unlike the NCAA Basketball Tournament, where the proceeds from gate receipts go to the NCAA itself, the Football Bowl Subdivision operates quite differently. Much to the liking of people like Tom Hansen, former commissioner of the Pac-10, the conferences themselves rake in millions upon millions of dollars in guaranteed payouts from the bowls. For instance, while Florida earned the lion’s share of payment for making the BCS Championship Game, the other members of the SEC still received a cut—for doing absolutely nothing.

For small schools, however, while bowls offer an opportunity for chancellors and university presidents to promote the school to prospective academic applicants (who have probably never heard of it until now), the numbers show that non-BCS conference schools—even the ones that make bowls—are often in the red when it comes to the football budget.

But as a display of capitalism at its finest, the shouts by the Toledos and Bowling Greens of the world (according to the Department of Education, both million-dollar budget losers) are often drowned out by the
Ka-chings! of the cash registers in places like Austin, Texas, and Athens, Georgia ($34 million-dollar winners on the same ED report).

5. The Coaches.
Mike Stoops saved his job with a stellar 5th-place Pac-10 finish and a Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl victory for the ages. And yes, that was sarcastic.

Ta-daa! If you didn't think you would see coaches on this list, guess again. Contrary to what you’ve seen on ESPN, while many big names in the coaching field have denounced the BCS (and its predecessor, the Bowl Alliance), don’t you find it peculiar that it’s been around a decade, and yet, nothing has been done about it? Pete Carroll and Mack Brown usually save their Kleenex for this time of the year because they perpetually feel slighted about the selection process.

But while the coaches of Top 10 programs throw pity parties after getting snubbed for the elite bowls, remember that there are 120 total schools fighting to make 34 total bowls (and therefore 68 spots). Since no coach has ever been fired for taking his team to a BCS Bowl, take away those five bowls (and 10 spots), and that leaves 29 second and third-tier bowls (and 58 spots). The 110 remaining teams will fight for these 58 spots, and more often than not, the coaches that successfully occupy those spots will have one thing we all crave in this economy: job security.

Think about it. Making the postseason means the coach has the chance to finish the season on a high note with national television exposure as icing on the cake. In fact, if he doesn't lead his team to the BCS, he still has a 53% chance of making the postseason! That's better than half.

Even though he might not finish in the Top 25, not only is he seen in a better light by his athletic director and boosters, a title like “Purdue: Motor City Bowl Champions” sounds a lot better in a recruiting pitch to a high school senior than “Purdue: 7th Place in the Big Ten.” Let’s not forget the added bonuses in coaches’ contracts for making a bowl.


With a playoff system and the abolishment of bowls, only one team would get the distinction of ending the postseason with a win, and a lot of coaches having mediocre seasons would be sitting on hot seats from Seattle to Tallahassee.

Of course, if you’re smarter than the average bear, you’ve discerned that all of these arguments still circle around one thing: cash. The bowl system is nothing but a big collective back-scratching money grab. If one were to get rid of it, think of all the job titles that would vanish into thin air, such as Bowl Committee Chairperson or St. Petersburg Tourism Assistant. Better yet, think of the Athletic Directors and coaches who would have to find another way to spin a .500 season to alumni and the media.

Maybe the aforementioned playoff system would work if the rest of the non-BCS bowls retained their current format so almost everyone wins. However, due to the age of television contracts, the playoff programs’ slice of the pie would then be immensely bigger, and the others’ shares even smaller. Thus, because of the overall billion-dollar greed in an
amateur sport (cue irony), barring a BCS boycott or serious media pressure on school administrators, I don’t think anyone will ever be brave enough to change the system, much less challenge it with any seriousness.

The bottom line is that the BCS isn’t going anywhere whether you like it or not. No matter how much I hate it though, I still want to travel to Pasadena on New Year’s Day just once and see the words “California Golden Bears” on a Rose Bowl program before I die. Just once.

The last time Cal played in a BCS bowl, there were 48 states. Yikes.

L.A. Stadium a Godsend for Pac-10

I'm sure you've read about it by now. The Governator signed a bill last week allowing the construction of a 75,000-seat stadium in the City of Industry in hopes of luring an NFL team back to the Los Angeles area.

While Angelenos weigh the pros and cons, from a Cal fan’s perspective, a new stadium could turn out to be absolutely beneficial for the Pac-10 conference as a whole. Three quick reasons why:

1. If an NFL team moves to Los Angeles, USC would no longer have a media monopoly on So-Cal football coverage, especially in the recruiting arms race.
Ever since DeSean Jackson stunned Pete Carroll by signing with Cal in 2005, it signified Jeff Tedford’s willingness to go to war over the state’s best high schoolers. Less television and print exposure for USC would be helpful for the rest of the Pac-10’s recruiting efforts in the area. Moreover, it would ease the Trojans' stranglehold on previously non-affiliated fans who had been looking for someone to support with season ticket dollars since the Raiders and Rams departed in 1995.

2. The Pac-10 has always suffered from a lack of contracted arrangements with elite bowl games (usually the ones played on or after New Year’s Day).
For example, the conference’s reputation has taken an annual hit during the postseason because while their champion gets a slot in the prestigious first-tier Rose Bowl (January 1), the runner-up’s prize is the much-maligned Holiday Bowl in December (in recent years against the Big 12’s fourth-place team).

A brand new stadium in the second biggest market in America would be a prime candidate to attract a first or second-tier big money bowl for the Pac-10, whose major bowl contracts next season have already slightly improved under new commissioner Larry Scott. In 2010-11, the conference champ gets the Rose Bowl bid, and the runner-up will enjoy an upgrade in an invitation to the newly signed Alamo Bowl (January 2). The Holiday Bowl will then slide to number three where it belongs. Now imagine sticking this hypothetical L.A. bowl anywhere in the Pac-10 pecking order at #2-3. In that scenario, the Holiday Bowl plummets down to #4, and the conference's profile immediately takes a leap since its three best teams would be assured of securing berths in three elite January bowls.

3. In addition, the Pac-10 might use the momentum this stadium will generate by showcasing it as the site for a future conference championship game, and subsequently, expansion.
By adding two upstart powerhouses like Utah and BYU to transform the Pac-10 into a 12-team conference, they would be able to compete with the Big 12, SEC, and ACC, who have parlayed their title games into multimillion-dollar TV contracts. Such a game would also improve the champion’s overall strength of schedule in the polls since the winner would have likely played one extra ranked team, an advantage the other 12-team conference titlists have enjoyed over the Pac-10 in the BCS era.

Debate: Does an Oregon Pac-10 Title Spell Doom for Cal Football?


The showdown at Autzen Stadium officially ended at 8:35pm on Halloween night, but the onslaught was so prevalent that it would not surprise me to see the scoreboard operator still out there manning his post. In an impressive 47-20 romp, Oregon boldly snatched the keys to the Pac-10 and derailed the seemingly unstoppable Trojan Express. At first glance, Cal fans rejoiced at the sight of the Wicked Witch’s demise and the apparent metamorphosis of conference parity from pipe dream to reality. Upon closer inspection, however, the Ducks’ coup d’état on USC’s crown has the potential to do more harm than good for the Golden Bears. Here’s why:

1. In-state recruiting, especially in Northern California. Of the 122 current Ducks, 66 hail from the Golden State, with 27 of them from the Bears’ backyard, which is anywhere north of Fresno. Moreover, 15 of their 22 starters are Californians (six of them NorCal natives). In eight years as UC Berkeley’s head coach, Jeff Tedford has done what his predecessor failed to accomplish by protecting the local talent pool, with Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch and Sacramento’s Syd’Quan Thompson being two prime examples of Oregon targets who chose to stay home. Nonetheless, with the Ducks’ recent success utilizing a lineup predominantly featuring California kids, an exodus of elite homegrown recruits to Eugene is not out of question.

2. Out-of-state recruiting. J.J. Arrington (North Carolina) and Boseko Lokombo (Canada) chose opposite destinations in past Cal-Oregon recruiting slugfests, and 2009 is no different. In jockeying for position behind USC as Pac-10’s second best, the Bears and Ducks have each finished runner-up twice the past seven years. Thus, an Oregon Rose Bowl berth poses a dangerous threat, since the Ducks would then be the first team to climb Mt. Monopoly, a fact that coach Chip Kelly will unabashedly exploit in his pitch to blue-chippers across the country who might also be considering Cal. In only his rookie campaign, Kelly handed Pete Carroll his worst loss ever; Tedford is 1-7 against his Trojan tormentor with only two field goals to show for his last two outings. With all the hoopla surrounding East Coast bias, the Ducks have duly earned national respect; the Bears, as a result of their two blowout losses to Oregon and USC, have been running in place as far as their perception in the national consciousness. These statistics do factor in a recruit’s decision-making process.

3. Oregon already enjoys advantages in the arms race. Nike founder Phil Knight reached in his deep pockets and pulled out $100 million for his alma mater Oregon two years ago. Autzen received a $90 million facelift in 2002. The Ducks’ facilities are easily among the best in the nation. At Cal, you have an elephant in the room in the appearance of budget cuts, tree-sitting protestors, and an empty BCS trophy case. The Holiday Bowl isn’t going to cut it when players want to smell roses.

The bottom line is that Oregon took a huge leap toward reaching equal footing with mighty USC, and it remains to be seen if Cal can recover from this blow.




To those overstating the Trojan blowout as the genesis of a Duck dynasty and subsequent banishment of the Bears to the fringes of irrelevance, it’s time to get off the grassy knoll. The Ducks may finish this season in Pasadena, but that scarcely means they have moved into the Pac-10 penthouse on a permanent basis. Remember, Mike Bellotti took the Ducks to a conference title and the Fiesta Bowl in 2002, but they never returned to the BCS under his watch. In fact, most attribute the Ducks’ regression over the following period to the loss of their offensive coordinator that year—Jeff Tedford. The Bears will withstand this storm, and precedent supports this argument. Here’s why:

1. One win does not make a program, especially in the recruiting game. What do Kansas, Oregon State, and Utah have in common? All three programs failed to reap a Top 25 signing class even after winning a BCS bowl that season. To further refute the line of reasoning that winning is the sole driving factor behind recruiting victories, what a difference two months can make. In the wake of the season-opening debacle at Boise State when LeGarrette Blount channeled Mike Tyson, the calls for Kelly’s head were so rampant that the coach even honored one fan’s request for a ticket refund. Rumors of de-commitments were as plentiful as the number of combinations in the Ducks’ uniforms. Yet, seven games later, are we to believe that everyone who jumped ship will now magically return? Hardly. By contrast, Tedford has eight winning seasons in as many years and has sent more players to the NFL than any other Pac-10 school except for USC. Recruits are well aware of this fact, so let time run its course before prematurely anointing Chip Kelly as the next Bear Bryant.

2. As far as defending California from going green, Oregon’s staff still has the arduous task of enticing kids to actually leave the state. In other words, things do not happen in a vacuum. As stated above, most recruits will go where they feel most comfortable. Sometimes that means embracing a utilitarian stance and family proximity as well as winning into consideration. Ask Vallejo’s Jahvid Best, who spurned both Oregon and USC due to his belief that he could play for a BCS contender and have loved ones watch him play at home. In short, while Kelly might continue to enjoy a measure of success in California—especially at historically Duck-leaning pipeline schools like Concord’s De La Salle—the Bears will always benefit from the advantage of recruiting on their home turf.

3. The facilities are on their way. The imminent completion of the Student-Athlete High Performance Center (SAHPC) will give Tedford the bargaining chip he desperately needs to keep pace with the Oregons of the world. With the aforementioned winning tradition, a world-class Berkeley education, and the added dimension the Bay Area offers that a place like Eugene cannot, suddenly all the Nike money only leads to diminishing returns.

When the Bears go Duck-hunting in Berkeley next year (like they did in 2004, 2006, and 2008) and culminate 2010-11 with their best signing class ever, this debate will be effectively put to rest. The only list Oregon will stay on top of is’s College Football’s Worst Uniforms ranking.

Additional research for this column provided by Matt Werner.

Break Up The Bears!

Throwback Article: Monday, January 12, 2009

The last time the Bears made the NCAA 2nd Round, against Oklahoma City. Totally neutral. (By the way, that's yours truly at the end of the bench.)

Winning on the road can be a very difficult task. In the Pac-10, where the games are usually on a Thursday/Saturday tilt in pod format*, a road trip can take its toll, especially on the back end of the annual trip to Washington state. To say that travel arrangements between Seattle and Pullman can be irritating would be an understatement, as the latter has no major airport or hotel, which means you stay across state lines in Idaho for the night. In the chilling snow. With a long bus ride awaiting you on the way to a place like the Palouse, where 99% of the fans won't be satisfied by anything else except to see you lose.

I've taken that trip before and watched our team go 0-2 (I've also seen them go 2-0). Oh, and pardon my French, but it sucks a big one when you're at the opposite end of a weekend sweep, because in addition to the deafening silence on the trip back home after you lose, everything negative is magnified. The pain from a player's ankle sprain goes from throbbing to shooting. Your bags mysteriously gain an extra five pounds as you drag them from your hotel room. Even worse, the flight back to OAK has probably entered a parallel universe in the Matrix, which can explain why the plane has been flying the unfriendly skies two hours longer than it should have. (At least it feels that way.)

Bear Bryant once said, "When you win, there's enough glory to go around. But when you lose, there's glory for none."
My point is while the repercussions of losing can sting, the best remedy to any backache or sprained ego is winning.

Last weekend, the Bears distributed the glory around like hotcakes, first at Pullman, and later, by pulling out an all-time classic in Seattle.
Three overtimes. Facing deficits of eleven, eight, and four points as late as the third overtime. Their last lead was when the scoreboard read 1-0. And yet, when the smoke cleared, the Bears somehow escaped UW with an 88-85 victory, pushing their record to 15-2 overall and 4-0 in conference play, marks which haven't been equaled since, well, four decades ago. Here are a few observations so far from watching this team grow over the last few months since I first saw them practice in the summer:
  • I've never seen a Cal team depend this much on scoring the majority of their points outside the paint. Then again, when defenses are dropping back into zones and daring you to take uncontested or partially contested mid-range jumpers and threes, you have to take them. And they've been lights out in that department.

  • That said, I've also never seen a Cal team run its offense through its point guard the way they've been doing it for Randle. Aside from the 5-foot-8 catalyst taking it to the hole and breaking down defenders 1-on-1, he's also scored off penetration after making his defenders work through double stagger screens and curls. And what's amazing about his 19 points per game average is that Cal's been calling ball screens at a minimum.

  • Cal's zone offense has been absolutely incredible. Christopher and Robertson have been carving up matchup zones from behind the arc as well as getting behind posts and scoring underneath as rovers, most notably against Arizona State.

  • Everyone has played above expectations, especially steady and scrappy freshman Jorge Gutierrez, but Harper Kamp's play has been the most surprising of all. He has been solid in all aspects of the game, but above all, his post defense has kept other teams honest. Against Arizona, he didn't dominate Jordan Hill, but he did just enough to contain and frustrate him in denying him entry passes, as well as by battling him on the glass for every loose ball. I think he's become a very valuable part of this team.
Of course, there are still a couple concerns. How long can everyone continue to play at this level? After the first full Pac-10 rotation, the other nine teams will have had a chance to review film and make adjustments. Finally, injuries and fatigue over the next fourteen games can decimate a roster and compromise game plans.

Regardless, the fact of the matter remains that a team that was picked to finish seventh or lower during Preseason Pac-10 Media Day has made those same voters eat their words. In fact, the Bears could theoretically go 5-9 or 6-8 the rest of the way, get a split or better in the conference tournament, and still make the Big Dance. But don't tell that to this team. They're gunning for the same objective the aforementioned 1959-60 team achieved: a conference championship.

*Pod Format = Pac-10 Basketball weekend road trips are spent at one of the five Pac-10 pods (Washington/Washington State, Oregon/Oregon State, Cal/Stanford, UCLA/USC, and Arizona/Arizona State), with Thursday's game at one school and Saturday's at the other.